Monday, April 22, 2013

Monday Cranky Blogging 2

Yes, yes, Maureen Dowd, but everyone already got there before me, pointing out that presidents cannot, in fact, wave a magic wand or say magic words or whatever and get Members of Congress to do anything they want.

I'm not sure if have all of them, but: Seth Masket is excellent. Kevin Drum made some good points (I'd quibble with him about party leaders vs. backbenchers, but he's right about the presidency). Jamelle Bouie is always very good on this issue. From a reporting point of view, Robert Costa makes the useful observation that Obama was already doing the best thing he could have in order to get Republican votes. All very good, and makes anything I'd add at this point pretty superfluous.

What I think needs some additional analysis, though, is this bit: "After the Newtown massacre, he and his aides hashed it out and decided he would look cold and unsympathetic if he didn’t push for some new regulations."

I think that's where any real analysis of this episode has to start, really. It's what Josh Kraushaar in his piece on how "Obama misread the politics of gun control," which centers, contra Dowd, on just how difficult it was going to be to pass anything, in large part because of the specific Senators who would be needed and their electoral incentives.

The question remains, however: what should Obama have done? He could have, as he did after Gabby Giffords was shot, just said nice things in a speech, instead of asking a bunch of politicians for a very tough vote. But that would have had costs, too. See, not only does Obama not have the power to demand votes from Members of Congress, but he also doesn't have the power to shut up those who wanted a big push for a bill. And it would have been an extremely awkward position for Obama, to say the least, to appear indifferent to a bill moving through the Senate -- and I think it's certain that Dowd and others would have lit up Obama even worse if he had taken a fully hands-off position.

The truth of this story is found somewhere in the middle, I should think. Those arguing that Obama had little influence are stretching, in my view: had Obama not taken the lead, I doubt a bill would have reached the floor of the Senate. The president was able to push for a legislative response, and my sense from the reporting is that he was able to strongly influence the nature of the response (expanded background checks, rather than an assault weapon ban or some other idea). He was part of the reason the bill got as far as it did. That partial success, in turn, may mean that there's a much better chance of passing something similar at some point in the future. That's not a bad several weeks worth of work, to tell the truth.

Does that mean Obama made the right choice? It's very hard to judge these things, especially with limited information. But, as all of those linked at the top point out, assessing any of it depends, to begin with, on a realistic idea of what the president's options are, and what his influence is.


  1. "had Obama not taken the lead, I doubt a bill would have reached the floor of the Senate"

    I think that's a part of the story that Dowd glides over far too easily (and generally, when something big like that is left out, it's a clue that something is up). The fact is, background checks got 55 votes in the Senate. No one can really think that that would've happened six months ago. Yeah, it's still a crushing defeat for Gun Safety Fans, but it's not a rout so definitive that it defines anything, other than the dysfunction of the current Senate.

  2. Why is it necessary to take seriously anything Maureen Dowd says?

  3. If you're going to lose, this is the terrain you want to lose on-- an issue that your side has long given up for lost, but which the public broadly supports you. I think Jonathan's analysis here is exactly right.

    What's the opposite of a Pyrrhic victory? How about a "Borodinic defeat," after the Russians' loss to Napoleon outside of Moscow?

    1. You would have to campaign for gun safety like people campaigned for gay marriage - by having proponents talk to as many individuals in the state as possible, repeatedly, to cut through the misinformation.

      For example, some of my family thought the bill was for "expanded background checks." They had been convinced that meant that the checks already being performed would be more invasive, not that criminals would be blocked from buying guns over the internet. In fact, they were shocked to find that out.


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