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In DC, say what you mean

By Jonathan Bradley

Maureen Dowd's most recent column has been justly panned far and wide — Dave Weigel calls it a "classic of 'magic president' fan fiction," and see also Seth Masket, Jonathan Bernstein, Jamelle Bouie, and Kevin Drum — but it seems to me that as poor as her analysis is, her real problem is one of language. This is a case of sloppy writing leading to sloppy thinking.

Dowd's argument is that a gun control bill expanding background checks failed in the Senate because Barack Obama... well, what? Among the things Obama did, according to Dowd's column, include:

  • "Took his foot off the gas"
  • Gave "soaring speeches" instead of "blocking and tackling"
  • Employed an "arm twister" instead of a "pitbull"

And what he didn't do:

  • "Leave the high road"
  • "Fetch the brass knuckles"
  • "Scratch it out with a real strategy and a never-let-go attitude"

Got that? Obama needed to keep his foot on the gas, block and tackle, fetch the brass knuckles, all while leaving the high road with a pitbull by his side. Geez, I dunno about Washington, but if you do that on the football field, that's got to be at least a fifteen yard penalty. Not sure what that equates to in Senate votes though.

I'm not actually attacking Dowd's many, many clichés. The problem isn't that her imagery is over-used, it's that it obscures the details of what she's actually talking about. Strip out the macho metaphor and here's what Dowd wanted Obama to do:

  • Not tell journalists he thought he would lose the vote.
  • Invite Alaskan Democrat Mark Begich to the White House and ask him how he could be persuaded to vote for the bill.
  • Invite North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp to the White House and tell her that the bill wouldn't prevent her being re-elected.
  • Hold big rallies in Ohio, New Hampshire, and Nevada — all swing states with Republican senators.
  • Ask Oklahoman Republican Tom Coburn to "do something big."
  • Give an emotive speech prior to the bill being voted on.

These may not all be silly ideas. But without the metaphorical frippery, they sound significantly more modest — and less likely to influence the outcome of a Senate vote — than Dowd's righteousness suggests. And that's even before you get to the fact that two of her ideas essentially consist of giving "soaring speeches." (I'm not sure why Dowd says "the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate" but thinks the solution is to go to swing states and win the argument with the public some more.)

In something as frequently uncertain and confusing as legislative politics, journalists should be looking to make things clearer, not more obscure. This is an occasion for the clarity of plain English, not the fog of figurative language.

Incidentally, an analysis in today's Times echoes Dowd's argument — right down to the "arm-twisting" imagery — that Obama wasn't willing to use his leverage over legislators to somehow force them to vote for a bill they didn't support. But according to this article, anyway, Obama did do one of the things Dowd wanted:

Senator Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, asked President Obama’s administration for a little favor last month. Send your new interior secretary this spring to discuss a long-simmering dispute over construction of a road through a wildlife refuge, Mr. Begich asked in a letter. The administration said yes.

Four weeks later, Mr. Begich, who faces re-election next year, ignored Mr. Obama’s pleas on a landmark bill intended to reduce gun violence and instead voted against a measure to expand background checks. Mr. Obama denounced the defeat of gun control steps on Wednesday as “a shameful day.”

But Mr. Begich’s defiance and that of other Democrats who voted against Mr. Obama appear to have come with little cost. Sally Jewell, the interior secretary, is still planning a trip to Alaska — to let Mr. Begich show his constituents that he is pushing the government to approve the road.

In passing gun control legislation, as well as a lot of other things he cares about, Obama will have an easier time if a Democrat represents a red state like Alaska rather than a Republican. (It might be polite amongst Washington observers to pretend Republicans are open to regularly voting for the President's legislation, but reality doesn't bear that superstition out.)  Obama really doesn't have a lot of leverage here; Alaskan voters will hardly be convinced to turn on a senator they did vote for at the word of a president they didn't.

Indeed, the president is in some ways less powerful today than he was in decades previous. This is in part due to the shifting make-up of the American political landscape: as Ezra Klein writes, "the political unity of yesteryear largely relied on a combination of extremist views and poorly functioning parties." It's much easier to convince a member of the opposing party to vote for your pet issue if you both nonetheless agree public schools should remain segregated.

Institutional changes have also affected the leverage possessed by party leaders: it's easier to maintain party discipline now, for instance, because committee chairs are no longer assigned by seniority. And the bipartisan campaign against earmarks has taken from presidents another favoured tactic for bending legislators to their will. 

Two final points:

  • Note that I'm not arguing that the president is powerless. As I've said before, the president is the single most powerful politician in Washington. But there are also 100 senators and 435 representatives at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and they all have power too.
  • Any analysis of Obama's failure assumes that gun control has failed. But, as Bernstein says, policy change is based on more than a single Congressional vote:

    My guess is that virtually no one, even among Democrats, pushed Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, or Mark Begich of Alaska — the Democrats who opposed the amendment today — to make expanded background checks in particular, or gun legislation in general, part of their core agenda during their last election cycles. If that changes this time, the results might change, too. Even more likely, if Senate candidates in open-seat primaries can be pushed to support consensus legislation, then they are very likely to support it once elected. And if they know they need that position in order to be nominated, they’ll take it. That doesn’t just mean national efforts; it means that local efforts, in each state and each House district, really can matter.

    ...this is the historical record on gun legislation. But it’s also the historical record on all legislation. It’s rare to have something pass the first time it’s tried (and while background checks are not brand new, this push for expansion mostly is). But whether it’s health care, campaign finance, or even the Patriot Act, most bills succeed after a long and painful process — even though final passage may come surprisingly quickly (as was the case with the Patriot Act).

    A lot of what we see in Congress is really only the most visible part of a political fight that is carried out across the country, day after day, for months or years at a time. It doesn't begin when the legislators stand up and nor does it end when they sit down.

23 April 2013