On its front page today, The New York Times criticizes President Obama for failing to hold Democrats who voted against the gun compromise accountable. While the point is valid, Obama's challenge may have been misunderstanding the extent to which senators empathize with the problem.
In its article, The Times returns to the somewhat-hoary analogy of President Lyndon Johnson, a story now etched into marble somewhere in DC by Robert Caro's biographies of the former president. The LBJ theory is that toughness counts.
Robert Dallek, a historian and biographer of President Lyndon B. Johnson, said Mr. Obama seems “inclined to believe that sweet reason is what you need to use with people in high office.” That contrasts with Johnson’s belief that “what you need to do is to back people up against a wall,” Mr. Dallek said.
The Times offers an example of how Obama has failed to back senators up. Mark Begich of Alaska asked the president to send the interior secretary to Alaska to work out a road construction project. Despite Begich voting against the crucial background check compromise last week — one of four Democrats to oppose it on principle, prompting Obama to label the vote "shameful" — that trip will apparently move forward as planned. The paper's Michael D. Shear and Peter Baker propose the reward-and-punish theory of politics: If someone does what you ask, they get perks. If they don't, they pay.
This is also the theory at play in the Washington Post's analysis of the failure of the compromise. The Post offers that the death of earmarks — the ability of Congress to include isolated perks for their districts in legislation — has made it trickier to reward and punish. If Begich had come to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, seeking additional funding for some road in Alaska (for example), Reid could once have used that as leverage to encourage Begich to vote the right way on the background check compromise. The Post quotes House Speaker John Boehner.
“When it comes to things like the highway bill, which used to be very bipartisan, you have to understand it was greased to be bipartisan with 6,371 earmarks,” Boehner said. “You take the earmarks away and guess what? All of a sudden people are beginning to look at the real policy behind it.”
But there may be something more fundamental at play than the complex politics of Capitol Hill negotiation. The president has repeatedly expressed the strength of his feelings about the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. He's made repeated reference to Hadiya Pendleton, a young woman who performed at his second inaugural and a few weeks later was shot to death in Chicago. This morning, a teenage boy was found dead a half-mile from the Obamas' house in Chicago, killed by a gunshot wound in his back.
For the president, gun violence is both his responsibility and the reality of his community. While the nature of the deaths in Chicago and at Sandy Hook are different, the root cause was the same: the availability of firearms. Obama's push prior to the vote focused on the emotional appeal, the demand that the Senate do everything in its power to save "even one child’s life."
That's not the reality of the communities where the defecting Democratic senators live. In 2011, the city of Chicago saw 435 murders; last year, that number topped 500. According to the FBI, the home states of the four Democrats who opposed the compromise — Begich's Alaska, Arkansas, Montana, and North Dakota — saw 29, 162, 28, and 24 murders respectively. That's all murders, not just those committed with firearms. Those four states had as many murders as one city in Illinois saw in six months.
When he was asked why he opposed the compromise legislation, Montana's Max Baucus responded simply: "Montana." Restricting guns to reduce gun crime isn't resonant in the state. While others, like Begich, may have been worried about reelection next year, Begich apparently wasn't. He was reflecting the will of his state. In Montana, gun deaths aren't a problem. Gun control is.
While Obama clearly had and has other tools at his disposal for influencing votes, he may also have overestimated the tool he chose to focus on — the plague of firearm deaths that he sees at home. Maybe you can withdraw Cabinet visits to try and get your point across. But you can't back someone up against a wall and instill empathy.