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.