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The BULLY PULPIT Tautology

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Chait notes the circular nature of green lantern arguments as media accounts rush to blame the eminently predictable failure of Congress to pass gun control legislation on the White House:

Would the threat of canceling the trip have caused Begich (and six fellow senators) to reconsider, as the story implies?

Obviously, we can’t go back and re-run history and find out. We can, however, find a reasonably close approximation. During Bill Clinton’s first two terms, a Democratic senator from a red state (Richard Shelby of Alabama) defected on key votes. Clinton tried the “ruthless” approach of punishing Shelby by denying him these sorts of discretionary executive branch perks — first limiting his tickets to a ceremony honoring the Alabama football team, then threatening to move some NASA jobs out of his state. The tactic was universally seen to have backfired.

Did it really backfire? Probably not. Shelby voted the way he did because he assessed his own beliefs and interests. But that is the beauty of ignoring structural factors for stories about people: You can always tell a new one. If the president was nice, he should have been mean. If he was mean, he should have been nice. (Unless he prevailed, in which case his shrewd politicking saved the day!)

Presidential hero stories have two archetypes. One is Lyndon Johnson arm-twisting. The Times today hauls out LBJ biographer Robert Dallek to contrast Johnson’s ruthless arm-twisting with Obama’s stand-offishness. Of course, LBJ enjoyed huge majorities in both houses, along with a majority-rule Senate. When Johnson’s majority shrank following the 1966 midterms, his domestic agenda shriveled away, too, despite his presumably undiminished grasp of arm-twisting and legendarily threatening body language.

And it’s not just that LBJ had huge majorities to work with before 1967; he also had something arguably even more valuable, liberal Republicans who supported (or weren’t strongly opposed to) his agenda during a time of weak party discipline. As Drum notes, it’s not clear what more Obama could have done to get Snowe’s vote for the PPACA, and there’s nothing that Lyndon Johnson could have done about that either.

Indeed, arguments about Obama’s excessive faith in bipartisanship — which have a great deal of truth in themselves — are often assimilated into green lantern critiques. Specific attempts to explain how Obama could have gotten sufficient Democratic votes for a public option are so embarrassing that most people making them just end up mumbling about FDR or assume the can opener in some other way. But it certainly is true that Obama and the Democratic leadership did spend a lot of time on a doomed effort to get Republican votes, and I suppose that’s something that could have been done differently. The problem is, though, that there’s a reason that the Democratic leadership placed too much hope on getting some Republican votes: if there’s no possibility of any crossover, the leverage that the leadership has over conservative Democrats is vastly reduced. If Snowe and Grassley supported the PPACA, you could tell Lieberman to cram it with walnuts when he pulled the Medicare buy-in double-cross. But when every possible vote for the bill is also necessary, the median Democratic votes call the shots. A lot of LBJ’s successful deal-making was based on everybody’s knowledge that if he couldn’t get what he wanted from A he may well be able to get it from B. With modern norms of strict party discipline, the possibility of cutting deals is greatly reduced.

And, of course, the argument collapses on itself, because (as with the argument that he could have gotten a much bigger surplus) the argument that Obama screwed up relies on an excessive faith in the possibility of bipartisanship. Because passing minor gun control legislation wasn’t a longstanding administration priority, I can’t say to an absolute certainty that Obama and Reid couldn’t have found some way to get every Democratic vote. I don’t really understand what leverage Obama is supposed to have over Heidi Heitkamp, given that he lost her home state by 20 points and won’t be in office the next time she runs, but who knows, maybe he could have found something. But given that 1)this wouldn’t have been enough to get the legislation through the Senate, and 2)even in the extremely unlikely event that you could get more Republican votes in the Senate, there’s no chance the House would pass any gun control legislation worth passing, I have no idea what the point of doing so would be. You don’t pull out all the stops to get legislators to pass symbolic votes.

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