By Eric Boehlert. This article was first published on Media Matters.
On April 17, families of Sandy Hook Elementary School victims watched from the Senate gallery as Republicans led a successful effort to filibuster a series of bills designed to address and curb gun violence. Following a months-long intensive lobbying campaign by President Obama, Vice President Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama, all of the initiatives, even the scaled-back effort to expand background checks to all guns sales including those at gun shows, were stymied and failed to clear the 60-vote filibuster hurdle.
Now, one year after the shooting rampage which unfolded December 14, the press still points to the failed vote as evidence of President Obama’s “rough year“; of his inability to get widely supported legislation passed into law.
Often excluded in that narrative is the larger context surrounding the gun bill’s provisions. According to polls, more than 90 percent of Americans supported mandatory background checks for all gun buyers. And now, twelve months after Sandy Hook, a recent poll revealed the political downside to the legislation would still be practically nonexistent: “Just 14 percent of all Americans and just 19 percent of Republicans said they would be “very disappointed” if such a law was enacted.”
More Context? In 1999, 31 Senate Republicans voted in favor of mandating background checks at gun shows. And in 1994, 42 House Republicans voted for President Bill Clinton’s crime bill, which went even further and included a ban on assault weapons.
But those days of Republican cooperation, especially on guns, represent a distant, faded memory.
The gun bill’s failure in April didn’t spark much anger or indignation in the press. It didn’t unleash a wave of commentary taking Republicans to task for their refusal to participate in governance and problem solving. What it did produce was endless commentary about how the gun vote was nearly entirely Obama’s fault; how Democrats got “cocky” and tried to do too much, and instead missed “their window” of opportunity and were left “grasping at straws.” (How the vote was now “shadowing the president.”) The press pushed its preferred storyline that the gun loss confirmed Obama doesn’t know how to use the levers of power inside Washington and remains hopelessly incapable of working across the isle with honest brokers in the GOP.
In the end, the background check failure was portrayed as a process story, and a process story that featured Obama as the big loser. In other words, nine out of ten Republican senators refused to support a scaled-down gun bill that nine out of ten Americans supported, but it was Obama who got targeted with the failure.
And that’s why the gun vote became something of a turning point for the news media this year. Because if the press could look at the GOP’s obstruction of the gun bill and its refusal to let a working majority in both chambers pass common sense legislation in the wake of a national tragedy, a gun bill that enjoyed overwhelming support among Republicans and gun owners, if media elites could witness that kind of intransigence and come away blaming Obama and giving the GOP a pass, than there was no type of radical Republican behavior the press wouldn’t excuse or water down.
And in 2013, there wasn’t.
From the sequestration, to the gun vote, to the government shutdown, to Congress’ historically unproductive year, it was Obama who time and time again became a key target. In a unique and illogical premise, the press often graded the Democratic president based on the obstinate actions of the Republican Party. The more radical the Republican behavior became, the lower Obama’s grade sank in the media.
And guess what? That led to even more obstructionist behavior, most of which the press has gone to great lengths to ignore and downplay. And a lot of that goes back to the bills inspired by Sandy Hook.
This week, National Journal’s Alex Seitz-Wald argued it was the Sandy Hook massacres, and Obama’s legislative response to it, that knocked the president’s agenda “off the rails” in 2013. Zeroing on the issue of immigration reform, National Journal claimed that if Obama hadn’t spent last winter trying to win support for a background check bill, immigration reform could have been passed; that following Obama’s re-election there was a reservoir of “goodwill” and a “willingness to compromise by Republicans.” (The GOP’s extraordinary attempt in February to block one of Obama’s cabinet picks suggested otherwise.)
But instead, by “engaging in such an emotional, polarizing issue so early” in his second term, Obama antagonized conservatives and made it impossible for immigration reform to pass into law, according to Seitz-Wald. Why? Because Obama had “fatally, and irrevocably, antagonized the populist libertarian Right.” That, plus the fact that “new revelations about Benghazi” emerged this year, meant it was impossible for Obama to effectively court cooperation.
Bottom line: Obama missed the window where Republicans were ready to compromise.
That argument though, ignores key context, the most obvious being that on the immigration issue Obama and Democrats successfully steered reform through the U.S. Senate where the bill passed with broad bipartisan support by a vote of 68-32, and that there’s currently enough Democratic and Republican votes in the House to pass the bill into law. It’s just that Speaker of the House John Boehner won’t allow the vote of passage to take place.
Meaning, counter to the National Journal claim, even after Obama took on the “emotional” issue of gun violence, he was still able to win over Republican support for immigration reform; enough support to break any filibuster attempt in the Senate and to win passage in the House.
As for the final, no-vote blockade that Republicans have erected in the House, and the blockade completely ignored by National Journal, does anyone really think that if Obama had ignored the issue of gun violence following the Sandy Hook mass murder, Boehner and Republican leaders today would have already allowed the immigration reform bill to be voted on in the House and then signed into law by Obama? Of course not.
Recall what Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) said after he briefly defied his party and tried to help get a bipartisan background gun check bill through Congress. He explained the filibuster defeat [emphasis added]:
By the way, there’s a real irony in National Journal second-guessing Obama’s decision to lead the fight for new gun laws. Throughout his presidency, and especially this year, National Journal’s Ron Fournier has led the media “leadership” crusade/charade, in which pundits decry Obama’s failure to “lead.” (And by lead, they mean Obama’s failure to convince Republicans to stop acting crazy, like shutting down the government.) But now the claim is that Obama erred politically by trying to lead too forcefully on the deadly issue of gun violence?
It’s almost like Obama can’t win with the press.