Blame where blame isn’t due

Updated
 
Blame where blame isn't due
Blame where blame isn't due
White House photo

When the Senate minority killed expanded background checks last week – and in the process, stopped the entire legislative effort to reduce gun violence – I thought it would put to rest the assertion that Congress would function more effectively if only President Obama would “lead” more. Alas, I thought wrong.

By the rules of the Beltway punditocracy, Obama did everything right: he took his message to the public, to the media, and to lawmakers directly. The president leveraged public opinion, accepted compromises, activated his electoral operation, and remained focused on achievable, popular, mainstream goals. The Republican filibuster prevailed anyway.

In a column that’s remarkably difficult to understand, Maureen Dowd is blaming Obama for the GOP’s intransigence.

Unfortunately, [Obama] still has not learned how to govern.

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.

It’s unbelievable that with 90 percent of Americans on his side, he could get only 54 votes in the Senate.

There’s something rather amazing about the argument itself: after 20 years of complete inactivity on gun reforms, President Obama was quickly able to persuade a majority of the country and a majority of the Senate to endorse sensible reforms. What a feckless leader!

I realize Dowd’s column has generated quite a bit of scrutiny, but the more I read it, the more I’m puzzled by it.

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.

Well, yes, Senate Democrats ostensibly “control” the Senate, but Obama’s party could not “muster 60 votes” because that would require the existence of several Republican moderates who do not exist. There are 53 Democrats and two independents who caucus with Democrats. A 60-vote supermajority it is not. What is there to “marvel” over?

President Obama thinks he can use emotion to bring pressure on Congress. But that’s not how adults with power respond to things.

Really? Because it seems to me reform proponents, including the president, have relied on reason and substance – the way adults respond to things. Does Dowd think Republicans – who engaged in post-policy nihilism throughout the debate – would have been more receptive if the president was more cerebral with them?

To thunderous applause at the State of the Union, the president said, “The families of Newtown deserve a vote.” Then, as usual, he took his foot off the gas, lost momentum and confided his pessimism to journalists.

Took his foot off the gas? He gave a bunch of speeches, turned his weekly address over to Newtown parents, worked the phones, and did all the things a president a president does when he or she wants to see a bill passed.

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.”

Yep, that was a great movie, but it was fiction. They didn’t need a war room; they needed five more votes. The problem wasn’t the lack of Michael J. Fox in the OEOB; the problem is there’s a radicalized Republican caucus on Capitol Hill that doesn’t give a damn about anything but tax cuts.

Sometimes you must leave the high road and fetch your brass knuckles. 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. Heidi, you’re a mother. Think of those little kids dying in schoolrooms.”

Here’s something casual observers of American politics may not fully appreciate: Obama has very little to offer Heidi Heitkamp. She represents a red state that voted against him, and by the time she’s up for re-election, he won’t even be in office anymore.

Obama had to persuade some Republican senators in states that he won in 2012. He should have gone out to Ohio, New Hampshire and Nevada and had big rallies to get the public riled up to put pressure on Rob Portman, Kelly Ayotte and Dean Heller, giving notice that they would pay a price if they spurned him on this.

A few paragraphs prior, Dowd wrote that speeches weren’t going to cut it. Besides, the public was riled up and Republicans didn’t care.

Tom Coburn, the Republican senator from Oklahoma, is one of the few people on the Hill that the president actually considers a friend. Obama wrote a paean to Coburn in the new Time 100 issue, which came out just as Coburn sabotaged his own initial effort to help the bill. Obama should have pressed his buddy: “Hey, Tom, just this once, why don’t you do more than just talk about making an agreement with the Democrats? You’re not running again. Do something big.”

In what universe was Tom Coburn going to vote for new gun restrictions? What makes Dowd believe he was a gettable vote?

Obama hates selling. He thinks people should just accept the right thing to do.

Right, which is why Obama failed to pass the Recovery Act, health care reform, Wall Street reform, DADT repeal, student loan reform, New START ratification, credit card reforms, and food-safety reforms. Oh wait, Obama actually passed all of those things, suggesting the president’s “hatred” of “selling” isn’t really the problem.

There were ways to get to 60 votes.

If Dowd knows what those ways are, she should say so.

The larger point here is that accountability and responsibility should matter, which makes columns like Dowd’s so disappointing. Republicans filibustered gun reforms, they lied about gun reforms, they partnered with extremists against gun reforms, and then they killed gun reforms.

So let’s blame Obama? Because he didn’t remind a columnist of a president she once saw in a fictional movie?

When those who deserve blame don’t receive it, they have no incentive to be more responsible the next time. Imagine how hilarious Senate Republicans found Dowd’s column – “We ignored the will of 90% of Americans four months after a madman massacred children and a liberal New York Times columnist is condemning the president she agrees with! Amazing!”

Dowd’s column is a counterproductive mistake.

Barack Obama and Maureen Dowd

Blame where blame isn't due

Updated