When Senate Republicans last week killed expanded background checks on firearms purchases, they were taking a political risk. After all, it was only four months after a massacre at an elementary school, and the bipartisan proposal enjoyed overwhelming support from the public. Some of the senators who supported the Republican filibuster are now paying a steep price.
So why did GOP senators put aside common sense and popular will? According to Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who co-authored the bipartisan measure, it wasn’t just about the gun lobby – some of his Republican colleagues didn’t want to “be seen helping the president.”
“In the end it didn’t pass because we’re so politicized. There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it,” Toomey admitted on Tuesday in an interview with Digital First Media editors in the offices of the Times Herald newspaper in Norristown, Pa.
Later, Toomey tried to walk that back a bit, saying he was referring not just to Senate Republicans, but also Republican voters, but I think in this case, Toomey’s original line was his honest assessment. Indeed, the clarification doesn’t even make sense – GOP voters “did not want to be seen helping the president”? C’mon.
I think the senator’s candor is important for a couple of key reasons. The first, of course, is that it puts the debate over gun reforms in a fresh light. You’ll recall that two weeks ago, much of the political commentary surrounding the Senate vote focused on holding President Obama responsible – he didn’t “twist arms” enough; he didn’t “lead” enough; he didn’t act like an Aaron Sorkin character enough. Blame the White House, we were told, for Republican intransigence.
According to Toomey – who presumably has a pretty good sense of the motivations of his own colleagues in his own party – the media’s blame game had it backwards. No amount of presidential arm-twisting can overcome the will of lawmakers who want to defeat the president’s agenda because it’s the president’s agenda.
The second angle to keep in mind is the post-policy thesis I’ve been harping on for weeks.
If you’re just joining us, Rachel used the phrase on the show two months ago, asking whether Republicans have become a “post-policy” party. This was the exchange between Rachel and Ezra Klein:
MADDOW: Does that mean that [Republican policymakers are] post-policy, that the policy actually – even some things that seem like constants don’t actually a matter them, that it’s pure politics, just positioning themselves vis-a-vis the president, and they’re not actually invested in any particular outcome for the country?
KLEIN: I would like to have an answer where that isn’t true. I really would.
In context, they were talking about budget issues, but note how well the thesis applies to just about every contemporary policy debate in Washington.
Indeed, according to Toomey, some Senate Republicans might have considered simple steps to prevent gun violence, but it was more important to them to play a partisan game – they were invested in pure politics, positioning themselves vis-a-vis the president, and the GOP was unconcerned with any particular outcome for the country.
This is unsustainable. The American system of government is dependent on a series of compromises – between the two parties, between the two chambers of Congress, between the executive and legislative branches – and governing breaks down when one party decides policy no longer has any value and there’s simply no need to consider concessions with those on the other side of the aisle.