The Iowa Democratic Party has chosen Alec Baldwin to give the keynote speech at its annual fall fundraiser next month, which could be seen as either a stroke of political genius or a sorry reflection of the lack of rising political stars in the party.
In the absence of a single significant challenger to Donald Trump, and with his GOP in control of everything at the national and Iowa levels, Baldwin, an actor and a Democrat, has something few others can claim: the ability to get a rise out of the president, without paying a price for it.
“Time to retire the boring and unfunny show,” Trump tweeted a year ago in response to Baldwin’s bitingly on-point parodies of him on “Saturday Night Live.” “Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!”
Whatever you think of Baldwin’s acting, some might call it a problem that the best response the Dems can muster to the current president and his agenda is comedic. But some of the deepest truths come through in comedic format, where people on the fence in particular are less threatened or resistant to the message. And for many who are already discouraged by the divisive tone of politics, comedy provides a safe space, a reprieve from the daily angst where they can laugh their hearts out.
It’s oddly appropriate for an era of life imitating art imitating life that an event that has drawn Democratic luminaries and rising stars including Al Gore, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro is now turning to a comedian to rally the faithful. But then, remember Al Franken?
We have a president whose disapproval rating is higher than his approvals and whose actions have earned him the titles, variously, of carnival barker, narcissist, birther, sexual predator and white supremacist-sympathizer. He is actually under federal investigation for attempted obstruction of justice connected to a probe into his ties to Russia. Whether he invited or welcomed Vladimir Putin’s interference with last year’s presidential elections is another subject of the probe.
This president has broken with predecessors by calling the press, one of America’s proudest democratic institutions, the enemy. His departures from presidential protocol - from accusing reporters of lying about his crowd size to hurling paper towels at Puerto Ricans who lost everything in hurricanes - are so constant and far-fetched that you couldn’t make them up. But even reporting them can get you accused of having a fake-news agenda.
So people are tuning out. In the span of last weekend, about a dozen people told me they can no longer watch the news because it gets them too angry or upset. Some on the left find solace in like-minded news analysts Rachel Maddow or Chris Hayes on MSNBC. But the best that other Americans can do is get their nightly broadcast news in parody form, from Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Kimmel.
This is a problem. People need to stay informed so they’ll speak up and pressure their leaders about what they don’t like. But how do they do that if they don’t know what’s going on? On the other hand, our politics have reached such a toxic level that opting out of the constant repetition of bad news can be a form of self-protection. Sometimes you just need a good SNL cold opener to see the (sometimes devastating) humor in it and remember you’re not alone.
True, past speakers at the fall Democratic event, formerly known as the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner, have defined a path forward, unveiled a blueprint for the country, offered a reason to be hopeful. They’ve been inspirational, compassionate and wise. Don’t look to Baldwin for that.
His life away from the screen has hardly been one to emulate. He’s been arrested for disorderly conduct and photographed assaulting photographers. He’s been a crass, belligerent drunk and drug abuser. But at a cynical time, a cynical actor may be Democrats’ best secret weapon, even if he simply depicts how not to behave. And Baldwin says he’s committed to helping Democrats win elections.
The party needs help. It needs to tap into a diverse crowd of potential voters, some of whom are turned off politics, and reach them where they live. If Baldwin’s brand of satire raises some money, brings some new people in the door and gets them energized and thinking creatively, Iowa’s Democratic Party could get the last and loudest laugh of all.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.