Things sort themselves out without any real agreement. Anyone who’s even vaguely conservative watches Fox News – run by Roger Ailes, who had been Richard Nixon’s media advisor and seems to be still at it, making unpleasant and shifty Republican politicians seem heroic, or if that’s not possible, turning them into martyrs. Yes, it’s time someone was fair and balanced, which is a motto about victimhood, at the hands of those who ask too many questions and unfairly quote conservatives, verbatim. MSNBC saw how much money was to be made in such focused self-righteousness and got in the game, and after the misfire that was Keith Olbermann, whose flamboyant self-righteousness finally became a joke, settled down with their current crew, who specialize in nerdy and highly detailed irony. That’s appropriate for their target audience – liberals who believe in rational thought about actual facts. Now they too have a home, but CNN was left out in the cold. Fox News had snapped up the perpetually aggrieved, the very angry folks, and MSNBC had cornered the market on rationality and incisive empiricism. CNN was left to cover the news, and no one watched them, except when there was a massive disaster or international crisis, when you just want to know what the hell just happened, when what it all meant could wait until later. CNN would lay out the facts, in detail, and became the network of record. There’s not much money in that, but someone has to provide all the basic information available, the raw material for the advocacy journalism of others.
It’s the same with newspapers. The New York Times, the Old Gray Lady, is America’s newspaper of record – it has been for generations, with its famous and much-mocked motto – All the News That’s Fit to Print. That’s the idea – be comprehensive and be thorough, with no nonsense. There’s no cartoon section – there never has been – and they didn’t run color news photos until a few decades ago. They added the crossword puzzle in 1942, but those puzzles are more intimidating than entertaining. They’re not in the entertainment business, and they certainly don’t do advocacy. They report on what happened – all of it, in excruciating detail. Rupert Murdoch may own the Wall Street Journal and all his tabloids, and Fox News, and the Koch brothers will soon own the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times – but that’s a different business model. Murdoch and the Koch brothers want to change the world. The New York Times wants to present it as it is, for the record.
The exception to that is in the separate opinion section, segregated from the news, where the Nobel economist Paul Krugman explains basic textbook economics – austerity does not create prosperity, folks – and David Brooks and Ross Douthat offer their rambles in the wilds of conservative thought – modesty and tradition are dead, alas – and where you’ll find the twice-weekly columns from Maureen Dowd – the oddest of the lot. Dowd was named a Woman of the Year by Glamour magazine in 1996 and won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary, an odd combination – but she’s a fetching Irish-American redhead, or used to be fetching, who can turn a phrase nicely, sometimes capturing the essence of things, and sometimes just being nasty with no real point to make. She likes nicknames. George Bush was the Boy Emperor and Dick Cheney was Big Time. In that first race she said that “Al Gore is so feminized and diversified and ecologically correct that he’s practically lactating.” Yes, she doesn’t seem to be all that interested in policy. She’s interested in personalities, in a gender-related way, or a Hollywood sort of way. She has called Obama both Spock and Bambi, which is seeing the world through the prism of junk movies. Perhaps she provides the New York Times cartoons after all.
She is an odd duck:
Dowd says she doesn’t mind that W. has nicknamed her “The Cobra,” and she probably kind of likes being called “the flame-haired flamethrower,” but she hates all monikers that involve knives or other sharp objects. “I have a fear of castration,” she explains, perching herself with catlike precision on the striped settee in her lacquer-red sitting room. “Not fear of being castrated but fear of castrating.” This from a woman who once referred to Al Gore as “practically lactating…”
Dowd is wearing a low-backed black sweater, black pants, and green cowboy boots. “I’m into clothes, but in a way that’s related to wanting to walk into a film noir movie,” she says. “You know, I love to go to vintage stores, but mostly it is stuff that I don’t have anywhere to wear. I don’t have the life that goes with the clothes. Alessandra” – Stanley, the Times’ television critic and another of Dowd’s best friends – “says my wardrobe is very Siegfried and Roy.”
It’s good that Dowd is dressed in a neutral color today, because otherwise she would clash with the room around her. Her red hair is backlit by her collection of motion lamps – glowing squares and spheres that bubble with swimming fish and parrots and floating music notes. The red walls are lined with shelves exploding with books, old record jackets (Nancy Sinatra, Peggy Lee), family photos, various feathered ornaments and fans, a collection of tigers, another of mermaids, and a dozen or so antique martini shakers.
She is not an Old Gray Lady. She only works for one, but no one’s quite sure why. The other columnists write thoughtful columns about policy, where inadequate ideas are ripped to shreds. Dowd goes for the person, not the idea. There are no inadequate ideas, only inadequate people, and now she’s at it again:
The graying man flashing fury in the Rose Garden on behalf of the Newtown families, the grieving man wiping away tears after speaking at the Boston memorial service, is not the same man who glided into office four years ago.
President Obama has watched the blood-dimmed tide drowning the ceremony of innocence, as Yeats wrote, and he has learned how to emotionally connect with Americans in searing moments, as he did from the White House late Friday night after the second bombing suspect was apprehended in Boston.
Unfortunately, he 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.
She had nothing to say about gun control itself, only Obama:
It’s unbelievable that with 90 percent of Americans on his side, he could get only 54 votes in the Senate. It was a glaring example of his weakness in using leverage to get what he wants. No one on Capitol Hill is scared of him.
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.
In short, he’s a wimp:
He chooses not to get down in the weeds and pretend he values the stroking and other little things that matter to lawmakers.
After the Newtown massacre, he and his aides hashed it out and decided he would look cold and unsympathetic if he didn’t push for some new regulations. 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.
The White House had a defeatist mantra: This is tough. We need to do it. But we’re probably going to lose.
When you go into a fight saying you’re probably going to lose, you’re probably going to lose.
Dowd says Obama didn’t watch the right movies:
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.” Soaring speeches have their place, but this was about blocking and tackling.
Instead of the pit-bull legislative aides in Aaron Sorkin’s movie, Obama has Miguel Rodriguez, an arm-twister so genteel that The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker wrote recently that no one in Congress even knows who he is.
Doug Mataconis just rolls his eyes:
Reading this column I find myself wondering if Dowd realizes that “The American President” is a nearly 20 year old movie that was a work of fiction, not a documentary about contemporary politics. Quite honestly, I’m not entirely sure because her column reminds me of people who have watched the West Wing and think that they have an in-depth understanding of how American politics, along with domestic and foreign policy, actually works in the real world. Perhaps there was a day when Presidents could drag Senators and Congressman into the Oval Office and cajole them into changing their vote. Lyndon Johnson may have been able to do that back in the day, but those days are long, long gone. Not only has the idea of party discipline changed significantly from what it meant 50 years ago, but the fact that Obama himself is a lame duck means that his actual political power is already beginning to erode. The idea that he somehow could have cajoled six Senators, at least one of which would have had to have been a Republican, into changing their vote on the Manchin/Toomey bill represents a naive view of politics that seems to be emblematic of Dowd…
Most fundamentally, Dowd seems to misunderstand what it is that actually motivates politicians in the decisions they make. Yes, principles matter, and there are some politicians, such as Bernie Sanders on the left and Rand Paul on the right, for whom principle is pretty much the beginning and the end of how they approach most policy issues. Most politicians, though, are far more pragmatic in their decision making and are unlikely to take a position that alienates them from the people they represent, and whose vote they will be asking for in the next election.
Mataconis doesn’t know what to make of this column:
The only explanation I can come up with is that Dowd has become enamored with the idealized New York-Washington corridor vision of politics epitomized by the movie she references in her column, and even more so by Sorkin’s classic television series The West Wing. According to this vision, the President is the all-powerful leader of government who, with just a little bit of persuasion and a lot of political skill can bend Congress to his will. The problem is that this isn’t how American politics works, or at least not how it works in the real world. You can’t just solve problems by being a “strong leader” and giving nice speeches. If the political winds are blowing against you, then you’re not going to win. In the case of this gun control vote, the political winds were not blowing in Barack Obama’s favor, and that’s why he failed. Dowd’s dreams that he could have been some fictional President that could enact the dream liberal agenda are just that, dreams and fantasies.
Kevin Drum is more specific:
Presidents obviously aren’t powerless: they have agenda setting power, they have agency rulemaking power, and they’re always at the table since nothing becomes law without their signature. This provides them with a certain amount of leverage. But not much. The truth is that presidents have never had all that much personal power in domestic affairs. Modern presidents have largely succeeded when they had big majorities in Congress (FDR, LBJ, Reagan, Obama’s first two years) and failed when they didn’t. That’s by far the biggest factor in presidential success, not some mystical ability to sweet talk legislators.
But there’s more to this. Dowd’s real problem is that she hasn’t kept up with either academic research or simple common sense over the past half century. She’s still stuck in the gauzy past when presidents really did have at least a bit of arm-twisting power. LBJ’s real source of success may have been an overwhelming Democratic majority in Congress, but it’s also true that he really did have at least a few resources at hand to persuade and threaten recalcitrant lawmakers. The problem is that even those few resources are now largely gone.
It’s a new world:
Party discipline, for example, is wildly different than it used to be. The party apparatus itself, which the president heads, has far less power than it used to have to compel support for a president’s agenda. At the same time, parties are far more ideologically unified than in the past, which means that picking off a few members of the opposition party is much more difficult than it used to be.
And that’s not all. Earmarks and pork barrel budgeting in general are largely gone. You can partly blame Obama for this state of affairs, since he was in favor of getting rid of earmarks, but this is something that affects all lawmaking, not just guns. The budget barons of the Senate simply don’t have the power to make life miserable for backbenchers who don’t toe the president’s line.
In fact, party leaders don’t have very much power at all over backbenchers anymore. The days are long gone when newly elected members spent years quietly working their way up the seniority ladder and providing reliable votes for the party along the way. These days, they vote the way they need to vote, and there’s very little anyone can do about it. Even threats to withhold fundraising are mostly empty. Party leaders need them more than they need party leaders, and everyone knows it.
And that’s not the worst of it:
Finally, there’s the most obvious change of all: the decision by Republicans to stonewall every single Obama initiative from day one. By now, I assume that even conservative apologists have given up pretending that this isn’t true. The evidence is overwhelming, and it’s applied to practically every single thing Obama has done in the domestic sphere. The only question, ever, is whether Obama will get two or three Republican votes vs. three or four. If the latter, he has a chance to win. But those two or three extra votes don’t depend on leverage. In fact, Obama’s leverage is negative. The last thing any Republican can afford these days is to be viewed as caving in to Obama. That’s a kiss of death with the party’s base.
Obama may very well be a lousy negotiator. But honestly, that’s just not a big factor here. He simply doesn’t have much leverage of any concrete kind, and when it comes to soft leverage his power is quite probably negative. That’s life in modern Washington. Dowd needs to grow up and figure that out.
Perhaps so, and Peter Beinart offers an entirely different way of looking at this:
What Obama did in the four months between December’s Newtown shooting and this Wednesday’s Senate capitulation was one of the great displays of presidential guts in American history. On gun control, the Democratic Party had been in the fetal position for years. ….
It would have been easy, maybe even defensible, for Obama to sign some innocuous executive orders and rationalize his caution by citing the importance of working with Republicans on immigration and the deficit. Instead, the White House worked desperately to keep public attention on gun violence and thus prevent the NRA from strangling legislation out of public view. In one of the most emotional scenes I’ve ever seen at a State of the Union address, Obama gestured to the parents of a slain Chicago girl named Hadiya Pendleton and then whipped the crowd into a frenzy by listing massacre after massacre and demanding “they deserve a vote.” He had a mother whose 6-year-old was murdered in Newtown deliver his weekly radio address. Michelle Obama, who has guarded her popularity by avoiding political controversy, almost broke into tears when she said, “Hadiya Pendleton was me” in a speech last week in Chicago.
Why did he do it? In part because the Obama-as-timid meme was always a lie. Timid politicians don’t oppose the Iraq War when virtually every other nationally ambitious Democrat is supporting it. Timid politicians don’t challenge the Clintons in a Democratic primary. Timid politicians don’t overrule their chief of staff and push through healthcare reform, when the polls show that Americans oppose it and their party has just suffered a devastating defeat at the polls.
But beyond that, I suspect that once Obama saw an opportunity, he pushed gun control so hard because he simply cares more.
It’s a matter of stepping back and seeing the larger picture:
Republicans often describe America as a country that was once pure – at its founding, before the New Deal, or before the 1960s – was sullied and now must be redeemed. Obama, by contrast, describes America as a protracted struggle to honor our best ideals by overcoming our evil past, a struggle in which heroes often die without ever seeing their labors bear fruit. It’s no coincidence that a month after Newtown, he swore his inaugural oath on the bibles of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, and spoke of “the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall.” It’s no coincidence that he so often quotes King (who was himself quoting the abolitionist Theodore Parker) as saying, “Even though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice.”
Although Obama can’t say it, because he can never seem to focus on race, I’d bet my mortgage that he sees gun control as a continuation of the civil rights struggle. And although he’s described himself as part of the “Joshua Generation,” which enters the Promised Land, he knows that he too will fail to cross certain boundaries. The gun control struggle will likely continue for decades. And this week its arc feels particularly long. But one day, a future president will look back at the last four months as the moment when Barack Obama began to make it bend.
This isn’t the junk movie that Maureen Dowd imagines, and Slate’s John Dickerson adds this:
To win the gun vote would have required a virtuoso’s talent for pressure and cajoling. Working the legislative angle on an issue this complicated, in this environment – especially when Obama held such a weak legislative hand – isn’t something a new president can just pick up, like finding the bathroom key.
You have to have had the skill going in, and Obama wasn’t hired to have that skill. In fact, it was the opposite: Obama was hired because he was the anti-politician. He wasn’t of Washington and he wasn’t really of politics. So it should come as no surprise that he couldn’t suddenly master the art of politics. He was hired to play the guitar, and he’s not going to play the piano very well no matter how many times you tell him how LBJ mastered Brahms.
Why is it so hard to imagine the electorate embracing a candidate today who had the talents that would have been required to pass the gun bill? Because such a candidate would have a long legislative record full of compromises and backroom deals where he or she learned how to break through gridlock and get things done.
That’s what Hillary Clinton was selling back in 2008, and no one wanted it. Dickerson reminds us that back then she said that it took LBJ to get Martin Luther King’s civil rights stuff through the Senate – you need a nasty wheeler-dealer to twist arms and get things done, and that wasn’t Obama. The idealists with their soaring words don’t get a damned thing done, really – and maybe she was right. That seems to be Maureen Dowd’s point too, but that’s not what the nation preferred back then, and may not be what it prefers now, although it may not matter much either way. As Kevin Drum explained, the problem is structural. Some things just can’t be done now, if they ever could be done. That’s not the real world now, and the seductive redheaded flamethrower at the Times, the Torch as Bush called her, simply provides the Old Gray Lady with that fantasy cartoon section the newspaper never had. That’s probably why they keep her confined to the op-ed pages – off the record.