Barack Obama lays out his gun control package with Joe Biden in January. (Reuters/Larry Downing.)
It’s no easy task to come up with an interesting newspaper column twice a week. Virtually no one has genuinely original thoughts—or groundbreaking reporting—on so demanding a schedule. Columnists therefore rely on hobby horses, lenses through which they see and interpret events that lead the front pages and other news outlets.
The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd is most famous for her tendency to reduce almost all political conflict almost exclusively to the personality quirks of the president and those of his top advisers and opponents. She assumes the role of armchair psychiatrist with verve and vigor and because she is believed by many to be a felicitous writer—and occupies what remains the most prestigious perch in opinion journalism—her work has provided many others with an example of how to analyze politics as well. Dowd’s influence is only one reason why so much of our political conversation is so intensely personality-driven, but it is an important one nevertheless. It has always been so to a certain degree, but the fact that she has achieved so much success and enjoys so much prestige for what is essentially a soap-opera driven model of policymaking.
Dowd, moreover, often combines her obsession with personality with a fairy-tale notion of the power of the presidency—at least Barack Obama’s presidency. In a most recent column, for instance, she blames the death of new gun regulations on Obama’s refusal to “get down in the weeds and pretend he values the stroking and other little things that matter to lawmakers.” She goes on to explain that while an effective campaigner, Obama “still hasn’t learned how to govern.”
And why not? Apparently it’s because he doesn’t want to. She asks:
How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate? It’s because he doesn’t know how to work the system. And it’s clear now that he doesn’t want to learn, or to even hire some clever people who can tell him how to do it or do it for him….
My oh my, observes, Dowd, “Even House Republicans who had no intention of voting for the gun bill marveled privately that the president could not muster 60 votes in a Senate that his party controls.” Note here, as Dowd does not, that the president’s party may “control” the senate, but they do not control 60 votes. Note, as well, as Dowd does not, that gun control is an issue that has historically divided the Democratic Party. Finally, note how ridiculous it is to hear of “House Republicans” tsk-tsking the president for failing to win the vote when it is the intransigence of their party that was the cause. Had they allowed an up or down vote on the issue, instead of resorting so frequently to filibuster tactics, the bill would have passed. Apparently there was no room in Dowd’s column to mention that.
Another suggestion Dowd makes is that “Obama should have called Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota over to the Oval Office and put on the squeeze: ‘Heidi, you’re brand new and you’re going to have a long career. You work with us, we’ll work with you. Public opinion is moving fast on this issue. The reason you get a six-year term is so you can have the guts to make tough votes. This is a totally defensible bill back home. It’s about background checks, nothing to do with access to guns. Hedi, you’re a mother. Think of those little kids dying in schoolrooms.’” Does Dowd know Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by 20 percentage points in North Dakota and hence, it is to her advantage to distance herself from her national party. And does Dowd really have a handle on the trending of gun control issues in that state, which happens to the be one that concerns Heitkamp, mother that she may be? I sure don’t. Given the fact that, as Dowd must surely have heard somewhere, candidates raise their own funds these days, Dowd is remarkably unclear about exactly how was Obama to convince Heitkamp to excite the passions of her potential opponents with no apparent benefits to offer.
Here’s another of her ideas for the president: “Bring the Alaskan Democrat Mark Begich to the White House residence, hand him a drink, and say, ‘How can we make this a bill you can vote for and defend?’” Did Dowd not notice how watered down this bill was from compromising to begin with? Just about the only effect would have been to make some gun buyers use the Internet a bit more frequently. If you didn’t vote for this bill, you don’t vote for “gun control” period, no matter what the details are.
Dowd goes on in this vein before topping herself, by suggesting that Obama adopt the tactics of a Hollywood-movie make-believe president created by her old flame Aaron Sorkin. I swear I’m not making this up. She writes, “The White House should have created a war room full of charts with the names of pols they had to capture, like they had in The American President.”
One expects this kind of thing from Peggy Noonan, who as it happens, made a virtually identical argument. That aside from being a believer in magical dolphins and a diehard supporter of the Republican Party. But Dowd, who has no particular ideology to speak of, should really be aware that when one party proudly and consistently refuses to compromise on anything and everything, it’s not really sensible to blame the guy who’s trying hard to make the deal. After all, as Jamelle Bouie points out in The American Prospect, “President Obama won reelection by nearly five million votes, but he didn’t win a majority of congressional districts, and only won half of all states. For a large chunk of Congress, there’s no particular reason to support Obama’s priorities—he holds no leverage over their political situation.” What does have leverage? Well, votes for one thing. And the fact is that far more people vote against politicians because of their pro-gun control votes than the opposite, especially in the states represented by the politicians Dowd believes to amenable to persuasion. Meanwhile, nowhere does she mention this salient fact: The NRA dispensed $18.6 million to candidates during 2012 election period in addition to an additional $4.4 million in lobbying funds directed towards Congress. The numbers for the pro-gun control Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence: $5,816 and $60,000, respectively.
Meanwhile, Dowd’s attack was considered so important that Politico’s editors though it was news all by itself. (Politico’s style of coverage, described in detail in last week’s “Think Again” column, is in many respects a tribute to Dowd’s pioneering focus on personality.) More surprisingly, so too did the Times lead news reporters on the subject. Writing a few days after Dowd, the paper’s Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker complain that “after more than four years in the Oval Office, the president has rarely demonstrated an appetite for ruthless politics that instills fear in lawmakers. That raises a broader question: If he cannot translate the support of 90 percent of the public for background checks into a victory on Capitol Hill, what can he expect to accomplish legislatively for his remaining three and a half years in office?”
Once again, where are the details about the dysfunction of the current system, the power of money and the recalcitrance of the Republicans?
Apparently... nowhere. And that’s the “news.”
Read George Zornick on how the Senate managed to torch the gun control package.