With their electoral chances faltering, key votes on "don't ask, don't tell" and the Dream and Disclose acts defeated, and an attempt to push through an extension of the Bush tax cuts stopped in its tracks, what could Democrats do to make themselves look good? Well, there's always the option of inviting a comedian known for attention-grabbing goofiness as an expert witness for a congressional hearing. It's a guaranteed win, right?
Or not. At the behest of the United Farm Workers and with the cooperation of Democrats, Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert appeared before the immigration subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee on Friday. He discussed a program in which American citizens work migrant labor jobs in agriculture—intended to prove that migrants aren't stealing work from citizens because the work isn't the sort of stuff most Americans want to do.
For those readers who don't know him, Colbert plays an over-the-top parody of blustery conservative hosts like Bill O'Reilly on his show, The Colbert Report. He appeared "in character" today, getting in a few punchlines, but the real punchline here is likely to be the Democratic Party. Put simply, Democrats look silly. The ostensible message of having him appear before the committee is that Colbert is an expert on immigration—perhaps because he first interviewed the president of the UFW and then participated in the program? But there's a reason Congress doesn't regularly call even serious news personalities, like Brian Williams or Diane Sawyer, to testify: TV anchors aren't experts. (Seriously, these things should go without saying.)
It's an affront to the preparation and knowledge of the real experts who come to Capitol Hill. There's no need to rattle on about the sanctity and dignity of Congress, because there are plenty of other things that erode that, too. But why would Democrats want to add to the problem? It makes them look like grandstanders at best, and incompetent ones at that.
Some Dems appeared to be uncomfortable. Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers asked a confused Colbert to leave early on (Conyers later withdrew his request). Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen criticized the choice outright.
It's unlikely that the move will make a serious dent in Democrats' fortunes in the midterms, although the conservative media is already lining up to land some blows. (The Weekly Standard's Mary Katherine Ham reminds us that Republicans aren't immune from such inanity, either: they called Elmo—yes, that Elmo—to testify on music education in schools in 2002.)
Salon wag Alex Pareene has a penchant for cutting through nonsense, but his tweet on Colbert misses the point: "I'm outraged that a comedian trivialized a serious issue today, by making a bunch of internet dilettantes care about it." Sure, a straightforward hearing wouldn't have gotten a lot of buzz, but the real problem is not the attention Colbert got. It's that the buzz about this hearing is just going to be about him. And even if he were actually qualified to talk about the issue—he did briefly wax serious, suggesting that improving immigrants' legal status could reduce farmworker exploitation—the public is unlikely to pay attention to the more substantive points he might have made. It's a shame.
(Here's a good rundown of the real policy issues at stake from Elise Foley of The Washington Independent.)
UPDATE, 2 p.m.: A colleague points out that NEWSWEEK has a bit of a glass house problem. On the other hand, we're not the U.S. Congress.