Roving thoughts and provocations

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Obama and the Myth of Arm-Twisting

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
President Barack Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner, February 12, 2013

The nonsense about what it takes for a president to win a victory in Congress has reached ridiculous dimensions. The fact that Barack Obama failed to win legislation to place further curbs on the purchase of guns—even after the horror of Newtown, Connecticut—has made people who ought to know better decide that he’s not an “arm-twister.” Ever since Obama took office, others have been certain about how he should handle the job and that he wasn’t doing it right.

Yet if the health care law is allowed to work, despite continuing Republican efforts to try to make sure that it doesn’t, and if we take into account some other victories—the Lilly Ledbetter Act, the stimulus that was as large as the political market would bear, the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill, the largest since the New Deal if Congress will let it be implemented—his presidency could go down as a time of historic achievement.

Nevertheless, when an insufficient number of senators was available to kill a hypothetical filibuster of the gun bill—a watered-down measure to expand background checks for gun sales (while opening gaping loopholes)—suddenly the word went out that the president is hopeless as an arm-twister; the assumption of course was that being a good arm-twister was critical for a successful presidency.

Wait a minute.

Arm-twisting is a narrowly defined and seldom successful maneuver by which a president can supposedly work his will with the legislature. It assumes that an elected official will cry “uncle” and change his or her mind upon being visited with presidential blandishments and threats: If you vote this way I will see to it that you get that dam. Or the other way around. Or: If you don’t vote for me on this I will make your life miserable for however long you are in office. That’s the popular image.

The problem is that such threats are rarely successful and a president would be most unwise to try to adopt them as a method of governing. Members of Congress are essentially independent operators. They’re quite aware that they were elected, too—often without the president’s help and in some cases with the president having been a hindrance because of his unpopularity in that member’s district or state. One result of a lot of pressure can be that, as has happened in recent years, a senator might up and change party: Dick Shelby, under Clinton; Jim Jeffords, under George W. Bush; Arlen Specter, under Obama, mostly because he feared a primary challenge by the Republican right. When Jeffords, fed up with the bullying by his fellow Republicans and the Bush White House, changed parties, he handed control of the Senate to the Democrats.

Moreover, arm-twisting is of limited utility. It may work to get support on a certain legislative maneuver, but it’s rarely successful on an ideological issue. If members of Congress deeply believe in a certain position or are convinced that if they vote a certain way it will spell doom to their political careers, they are likely to be immune to arm-twisting. And if there is one subject in recent years on which it would be least likely to apply, it is on the ideological if misunderstood and misrepresented problem of regulating the use of guns.

Distorted as their interpretation may be, many people believe that the Second Amendment guarantees them the right to purchase any guns and as much ammunition as they please. And the National Rifle Association has done a sufficiently effective job of spreading the “camel’s-nose-in-the-tent” fear among enough gun owners to tip the election outcome in certain states and districts—or at least to make numerous politicians worry that it can. A loss by one point or less is still a loss. It doesn’t have to be empirically true that to oppose the gun lobby is to risk defeat for a member of Congress to think that that is the case. Taking career-risking chances isn’t in many politicians’ make-up—they may think or tell themselves that they should go along with the NRA’s position because their presence in Congress is of such value to their constituents on a number of other issues. And in recent years reelection in many areas has become almost routinely a double gauntlet—the challenge being to fend off intensely ideological and well-funded forces in a primary by appeasing them, and then somehow to win the state at large. Even for the ostensibly most secure members, getting reelected is a far more hazardous prospect than it had been, say, half a dozen years ago.

Arm-twisting is particularly futile on an issue involving ideology. The Congress’s action on ideological issues can have little to do with the polling numbers on those issues. The polls can indicate a large majority on an issue but that doesn’t mean that this proposition will be uppermost in all those voters’ minds when they next go to the polls—which may not be for at least a couple of years, by which time other issues dominate the headlines. The intensity is quite likely to rest on the side that opposes laws that may interfere with ideologically held views: for the person who worries (irrationally, but no matter) that the government might move to take his guns away this might be the most important issue in the election. That person will go door to door, make calls, and is far more likely to vote in a primary than the person who favors background checks for gun purchasers among a number of matters. And there may well be no compelling issue that drives that person to vote in a primary.

This isn’t to say that there haven’t been some legitimate grounds for criticizing Obama’s dealings with Congress. He left the writing of the stimulus and health care bills to legislators, leading to rather messy processes and laws; and his greatest failure on the health care bill was that he didn’t get across to the country what it would do—a lapse that cost him dearly in the fateful 2010 elections. He hasn’t always been the most skilled of negotiators and many Hill Democrats expressed despair that he gave away too much too soon. He became known as “Mr. Fifty-Yard Line.” His legislative liaison office is short of the spectacular. Though he is a reserved man and not a little haughty he is also capable of considerable charm and knows the conversational requirements of politics, and he would have been better served by a bit more schmoozing—especially with the Democrats, who were essentially on his side. In Washington intelligence is a very valuable commodity.

Sometimes a member can be persuaded—often through the president’s proxies on the Hill—to vote one way on a procedural motion while remaining free to vote the opposite way on the bill itself. Thus some senators said that they would vote to end a filibuster on bringing up the bill to expand background checks but would oppose passage of the bill. In the case of the gun legislation they were more inclined to allow the gun legislation to be brought up before the Senate because they could sense growing national fervor that they “do something” about the proliferation of guns and the spread of mass murders, and they didn’t want to appear to be opposed to even allowing the Senate to consider the matter. But to approve letting it be brought up wasn’t as risky as being made to cast a vote on whether it should be approved. Not a lot of arm-twisting was needed to get them to cover their tracks in this way.

Persuasion on such procedural maneuvers can come from congressional leaders as well as from the White House (though they are often on its behalf). Probably the most flagrant example in modern politics was the colossally expensive (and unpaid-for) addition of drug benefits to Medicare in 2003—at once a play for reelection support for George W. Bush, whose second term didn’t seem at all a sure thing at that point, as well as a boondoggle for the drug industry, which also got itself exempted from competitive bidding by the government. In their efforts to get the bill through the House, Republican leaders held the final vote open for an unprecedented three hours—fifteen minutes is usually the max, so they froze the clock as if this wasn’t happening—while House majority leader Tom DeLay, who did not come by his sobriquet “The Hammer” for no reason, “persuaded” enough of them to vote for the bill. Members literally ran and hid from DeLay, who later was reprimanded for his heavy-handedness; unperturbed, two years later DeLay handed out checks from the tobacco industry while the House was considering the elimination of a tobacco subsidy.

The exorbitant price of the drug program (then projected at about $1 trillion) was withheld from the public, a move that was most irregular if not illegal. Now that’s arm-twisting. No president since could come close to matching such methods of persuasion, nor would he or she be advised to.

A very different kind of method—the opposite in fact—has been deployed to help a president to get what he wants from Congress. Though Lyndon Johnson was better known and somewhat mythologized for employing intimidation to get his way, he was capable of making a member feel like a hero for aligning with him on a key vote. To secure passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Johnson finally won over Senate Minority Leader Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois—a conservative who might at any time break into an ode to the marigold (which he wanted to make the national flower)—by flattering him as a statesman. (An aide to Democratic Whip Hubert Humphrey, deputized by Johnson to bring Dirksen around, said, “We’re going to place him in a corner of a garden and bathe him in blue lights.”) Small favors—John F. Kennedy elevated Dirksen’s standing by calling him in for consultation at the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis—can be repaid not by any specific vote but by providing a more cooperative atmosphere.

Kennedy in fact didn’t do well at all in winning big items from Congress. A number of significant pieces of legislation were stagnating at the time he was murdered. The far less beloved Johnson got not only those but a large number of other bills implemented and has often been held up as the model for Obama. But the suggestion that Obama should be like LBJ is ridiculous. After his 1964 landslide Johnson had sixty-seven Democrats in the Senate, and a super-majority in the House as well. There was also available to him the cooperation of numerous moderate Republicans—now a nearly extinct species. (Even Bill Clinton had at least ten moderate Senate Republicans he could deal with.) In fact, because members of Congress have become all the more adept at raising their own money and able to commute to and connect with their districts or states with more ease, Johnson would be laughed away if he tried to govern now the way he did then.

Moreover there simply aren’t many arms for Obama to twist: especially since the 2010 elections he has faced the most negative, intractable, and obstructionist Congress in modern history (or maybe ever). And such is the polarization of our politics that the great majority of each party votes the same way, leaving few available for persuasion. The power to persuade diminishes with the diminution of persuadables. It wasn’t within Obama’s power to prevent five Democratic senators from voting against the background check bill nor, given that he still wouldn’t have enough votes for the senate to adopt it, was there any real point in his trying to do so. (Members can even feel grateful to a president for letting them do what they felt they must rather than give them a hard time for no good reason.) Yet the lack of tolerance on the part of numerous others could end in making his own legislative situation more difficult still.

Much wrath has fallen on the head of Heidi Heitkamp, a freshman senator from North Dakota, for having voted against the bill, since she has more than five years to go before reelection; but memories in Washington are long. Some liberal groups have said that they will go after Mark Pryor, of Arkansas, who faces a difficult reelection—though the result might be the election of a Republican who will oppose them on many more issues than gun control. Outraged liberals intent on punishing Democrats who didn’t support the background checks—all of them from states where the feeling for gun ownership is strong—could end up getting Republicans elected instead.

While people are attacking Obama for not winning a gun bill, it might be worth their pausing to take note of the fact that even if he could have successfully “arm-twisted”—somehow—all five Senate Democrats who voted against the background check there still wouldn’t be sufficient support to reach the now routinely required sixty votes to get it through the Senate. Only four Republicans supported the bill, for a result of 54-46. In such a situation, there’s little incentive for a Democrat from a state with a strong pro-gun tradition to cast a vote for a bill that isn’t going to pass anyway. Members of Congress watch the vote count—you can see them on C-SPAN gather at the front of the Senate to look over voting as it goes on—so they understand better than a great many observers do when their vote is moot.

The heartbreaking stories of the parents from Newtown, Connecticut, weren’t likely to change the vote of a senator whose constituency was quite different from Connecticut’s and who—validly or not—feared that a vote for gun control might cost him or her reelection. It would seem that President Obama would know that—but to be seen as not trying quite hard to get gun control legislation through Congress would have been a severe blow to his standing. As it was, he set his ambitions quite low, demanding not victory on the legislation itself but simply a vote on it. While that succeeded through a vote to end a filibuster on bringing up the bill, there simply weren’t the necessary sixty votes on the bill itself—even though it was a pathetic if mischievous “compromise” bill written by two strong NRA supporters with an NRA representative in the room. But any effort to strengthen the bill was stymied by a further and novel hurdle insisted upon by Mitch McConnell: that sixty votes would also be required for any amendment to it. The march away from majority rule picked up its pace.

While the bill did impose background checks on sales at gun shows and over the Internet, the holes left in the restrictions rendered it a minor advance; other provisions loosened some restrictions the NRA had been wanting to get rid of for years. The NRA pulled a fast one. A ban on assault weapons, such as was adopted under Bill Clinton and allowed to expire under George W. Bush, didn’t win even a majority of votes in the Senate this year.

So in the end the president and the Congress were shadow boxing over a symbol—whether any legislation at all could be passed to tighten up restrictions on guns. And when the opponents of even the mildest of gun control measures proved adamant, criticism rained down on Obama for not doing what it wasn’t in his power to do. For all the admiration Americans often express for Edmund Burke’s famous speech to the electors of Bristol—that a politician should apply his “enlightened conscience”—it’s totally irrelevant to the current state of our politics.

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