As reporters found their seats in the House press gallery, they shared a question: Where was Ted Nugent? The 64-year old rock star, who last cracked the charts with 1980’s “Wango Tango,” had been invited to the State of the Union as a guest of Texas Rep. Steve Stockman. Thirty-odd Democrats had invited the families of gun violence victims to sit for the speech, but they were never famous. Not even in 1980.
BuzzFeed’s D.C. editor, John Stanton, asked a peer to help him find a “tall, crazy-looking” white guy. When President Obama entered the chamber, Nugent stood up, and reporters finally saw him. He spent the entire speech, 13 typed pages, in various stages of physical agony. At the emotional apex of the night, when the president counted off victims who “deserve a vote,” Nugent sat with his arms crossed.
“My favorite part was when I couldn’t hear clearly,” said Nugent to reporters after the speech. “Then I didn’t get angry.”
A cynic might have looked at Nugent then, attracting swarms of reporters below statues of Bob LaFollette and Huey Long, and asked why the media went so astray. It’s a good question. But Obama’s speech—especially the rousing section on guns—was an appeal for skeptical members of Congress to abandon their positions and come around to his. If Nugent joined the Republican caucus, he wouldn’t even be its most conservative member. Someone more conservative could—nay, will—throw up hurdles against a gun bill, or an immigration bill, or a voting reform bill.
The president’s message: I dare you. “Overwhelming majorities of Americans—Americans who believe in the Seconnd Amendment—have come together around common-sense reform,” said the president, “like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun.” A new climate bill would be “like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago.” Immigration would happen because “as we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill.”
This worked well on the specific people Obama cited. McCain, who spent the hours before the speech threatening to filibuster Obama nominees until he got more facts about the 2012 Benghazi killings, leapt to his feet and smiled at the immigration line. He nodded over at Sen. Lindsey Graham, his foxhole buddy from the 2005-2007 immigration wars. Sen. Chuck Schumer, their most powerful Senate ally from the other team, stood even taller between them. (It helps that he’s actually taller than they are.)
The problem is that McCain and Graham won’t back Obama on his other priorities, and most Republicans won’t even back him on that one. As the president discussed hiking the minimum wage to $9 an hour and indexing it to inflation, Rep. Greg Walden made exaggerated expressions of disbelief. Walden runs the National Republican Congressional Committee, tasked with keeping the House red. He’s talked openly about how tight gerrymandering has shored up at least 191 of the 218 seats Republicans need to keep control. He wasn’t hearing anything that threatened the party; thus, he wasn’t hearing anything that could get their votes.
The gun control issue was the most obvious proof. “There are more people killed with baseball bats and hammers than are killed with guns,” said Rep. Paul Broun, a Georgia conservative who’s leaving an ultra-safe seat to run for the Senate. “Universal background checks is actually a policy that’s been put in place, historically, to lead to confiscation of guns. It’s the most dangerous attack on freedom I’ve seen since I’ve been in Congress.”
Broun is generally pretty useful to Democrats because he talks like—well, like that. Democrats, whose post-election optimism hasn’t worn off, sell ready-made legislation that’s endorsed by real, credible humans. Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, invited a woman named Cleora O’Connor to the speech, because her son had been killed by a gun and she wants Congress to act. “They all stood up when the president said that line: We need to honor them with a vote,” said Cicilline. “Now, maybe they were standing up out of respect for the victims, not for the idea that we need to vote. But I thought it was powerful.”
But Rep. Dennis Ross, a central Florida Republican who eschews Broun-style flamboyance, was more careful but still opposed to a gun bill. Maybe, maybe Democrats could build momentum for hearings on a gun bill. Republicans were learning, or re-learning, how to sound less harsh about this stuff. But what about the particulars? “How do you enforce the law of a background check between everyday buyers and sellers?” asked Ross. “The practical application might lead to more problems than anything we have now.” And anyway, “the evidence that foretells how far that can go, in this Congress, is that there were fewer Democratic senators standing for that than for [anything else].”
That fills Republicans with confidence. As Nugent talked to reporters, his sponsor, Rep. Steve Stockman, was standing more or less alone, discussing the lack of depth behind any gun bill push. “I was listening to NPR this morning,” said Stockman. “Yes, I listen to NPR! The senator from West Virginia was on, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m for more gun control.’ They said, ‘Give us specifics.’ And by the end of the interview he didn’t really have any.”
Nugent just kept moving from camera to camera, from the set-up satellite feeds in Statuary Hall to the hand-helds of independent reporters. Like the median House Republican, he had his constituency, and he knew it was bigger than the liberals’. “If you walk the halls with me,” he told a National Review writer, “every military guy, every cop, has an Uncle Ted story. See the smile on my face? These are my buddies here. I’m surrounded by working hard, playing hard Americans.”
Nugent was shepherded over to a standing MSNBC camera. Two police officers looked on, confused by the mobile media herd.
“Who’s that?” asked one cop.
“It’s Ted Nugent,” said the other cop. “He’s a rock star, he talks about guns.”
“Really? Never heard of him.”