Pardon the cynicism, but I wonder if President Obama is really all that upset with the Senate’s inability to pass gun-control legislation this past week.
In case you missed it, the Democratic-controlled half of Congress failed to pass seven measures having to do with guns, gun-trafficking and gun-ownership, the most notable being an amendment to expand background checks that fell six votes shy of the mark.
The President wasted no time in showing his disgust, calling the 54-46 outcome “a pretty sad day in Washington” (more, in a moment, on why the majority advantage constituted a legislative defeat). A series of gun-control advocates joined the chorus. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg labeled the background check vote a“disgrace”. Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in this New York Times op-ed, said she was “furious”.
So why the cynicism?
1) The Votes Were Designed to Fail. Keep in mind that this Senate amendment didn’t merely fail – it failed under the rules of the debate. Let me amend that: rules determined by the Democratic majority leadership, with the entire chamber’s approval. Rather than setting the rules so that each gun-related amendment would need only 51 votes to pass, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid instead set the bar at 60 votes. Why? Because, as this analysis explains, it enabled Reid to get votes on the measures without opening the door to further tinkering by gun-rights advocates (for example, allowing concealed-weapon permits to cross state lines). Did Reid think he had 60 votes going into the debate? As a Nevadan surely he can count cards heads. If not, and he knew 60 was out of reach, why not lower the threshold to 51 votes (50, actually, since Vice President was presiding) and dare Republicans to filibuster?
2) Did the White House Play to Win? If you want to understand how Washington used to work, read Robert Caro’s great biography of Lyndon Johnson. As a Senate Majority Leader, he ruled the chamber with a Texas-sized iron fist – a bully in a Stetson. The style didn’t change when LBJ relocated to the Oval Office (here’s audio of Johnson putting the screws to a couple of reluctant senators on an excise-tax bill). In all, 55 senators voted for the background check amendment (Reid changed his “no” votepost facto so that he could revisit the matter at a latter date). In order to reach 60, Democrats needed to flip four of their own, plus pick off one reluctant Republican (here’s the entire roll call). Reportedly, three of those Democratic senators, all facing a difficult re-elect, in 2014, in states that preferred Mitt Romney to Obama last fall, were “never in play”. But did Obama and Reid really try to flip them? Presidents specialize in patronage and punishment – they can promise soft landings (ambassadorships, administration posts) if a member walks the gangplank on a controversial vote; they can make life miserable for party dissidents by cutting off fundraising. As for the Majority Leader, he can exile troublemakers to legislative Siberia. Maybe the red-state Democrats never gave ground. Then again, North Carolina’s Kay Hagan, likewise a Democrat in a difficult 2014 race, was willing to vote yes.
3) 2013 Is Really About 2014. Back in early March, the President had this to say to reporters with regard to the sequester fight: “What I can’t do is force Congress to do the right thing. The American people may have the capacity to do that.” Translation: come 2014, voters will punish Republicans for blocking my agenda. As with gun control, the President has all sorts of progressive ideas – climate change, higher taxes, universal preschool – that are dead on arrival in a Republican House. So how then to pick up the 17 necessary to put Democrats back in control of that chamber? The President can either boost his own numbers(at present, he’s about 15 points lower than where Bill Clinton stood in his second-term midterm), or he can try to further deflate the House GOP’s already dismal standing by portraying Republicans as the party of no. When all but three Republican senators voting against the background check amendment, watch for the White House to play up that stereotype.
Perhaps the President had a heated reaction to the gun vote because he’s had a rough April. Then again, the past week has been rough on a lot of Americans – the tragedies in Boston and Texas, helped in no way by some bad behavior from both political extremes (some on the left shamefully wishing the Boston perpetrators were angry, ant-government white males; some on the right spending too much time obsessing, as they did after the Benghazi attack, over Obama’s use and non-use of the word “terrorism”).
In times such as this, Americans grapple with the twin concepts of loss of life and loss of innocence – just as they did after Newtown, Virginia Tech and other moments that remind us of the good and evil in this modern age.
How sad it would be if events in Washington such as the gun-control vote, cloaked in the shadow of a great tragedy, were instead a cover for something even more shadowy: partisan gain.
Follow Bill Whalen on Twitter: @hooverwhalen