Despite the fact that Americans, including gun owners and Republicans, are lending historic levels of support to President Obama's endorsed proposal to expand background checks for all gun purchases, the list of Republican senators vowing the filibuster any such bill expanded this week: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell became the 14th Republican to pledge not to allow a vote on any proposed gun legislation to take place on the floor of U.S. Senate.
In the end, it seems the attempted blockade to halt debate on the legislation has failed. But the Republicans' obstructionist strategy was no surprise, considering the party quickly coalesced around that dead-end tactic in early 2009. It's an unprecedented approach they've adopted to essentially proudly oppose anything endorsed by the White House, including, cabinet nominees and emergency relief packages.
That's now a given. What continues to shock is the extent to which the press in the weeks leading up to the pending gun vote played along with the Republican intransigence. What's distressing is how Beltway pundits largely gave Republicans a free pass and instead focused its blame on Democrats for failing to change Republicans behavior; for getting "cocky" and missing "their window" following the school massacre in Newtown, CT. And for "grasping at straws."
Routinely, we saw gun narratives that found fault primarily with the president: If only Obama had acted sooner, or proposed different legislation, or talked more often to Republicans, or not held public events in support of new gun laws. If Obama had just done everything differently, pundits suggested, he would've been able to win substantial Republican support and been able to easily secure passage of new gun control legislation.
That's because, despite four years of relentless obstruction, much of the press still hasn't budged from its preferred, naïve premise that, collectively, Republicans are routinely open to compromise, that they're honest brokers, and that it's Obama's job to just figure out how to get them to say yes. (Why won't he just lead?)
In the end, Democrats in the Senate this week may succeed in brokering a deal on gun legislation. As of now, Democrats will at least be able to bring the issue up for discussion in the Senate, which actually constitutes a major victory amidst the Republicans' blanket of no. But it's odd Democrats have so often been the focus of the press' attention, when Republicans are the ones standing in the way.
By the way, how radical of a shift is today's GOP behavior on guns? 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 included a ban on assault weapons.
But little of that matters now.
The Hill reported that efforts by the pro-gun lobby, working in sync with Republicans, had been “effective” because Obama had “struggled to win GOP support” for new gun regulations. (Even as Republicans supposedly try to keep “their distance” from groups like the NRA.) The Washington Examiner concluded a failure to pass gun legislation “would cast a pall over the president's second-term agenda and weaken his leverage with Republicans.” And the Washington Post signaled that if Republicans killed proposed gun legislation that would be a “major setback for the White House and its allies.”
Question: If you're an entrenched Republican who keeps doing nothing (i.e. who keeps saying no Obama), and the press keeps crowning you the winner, why would you ever switch strategies? Also, why would you change your behavior if the press routinely, and conveniently, omits context about your runaway obstructionism, and instead portrays it as normal and routine.
Note that on its “It's All Politics” podcast last week, NPR's Julie Rovner discussed pending gun legislation and noted, “of course it may get filibustered.” But why would a bill with a primary proposal (expanded background checks) supported by 90 percent of voters automatically be the target of a Republican filibuster? Rovner suggested the GOP move to impede was a given (“of course”), but she never explained the context, which is that Republicans pretty much filibuster everything. Or at least they threaten to.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post noted that “Obama and his allies” had not been able to “leverage nationwide support” for the gun proposals and turn that into political “will to pass them on Capitol Hill.” Even the Post seemed amazed that the background check proposal, which is almost universally supported by voters, last week was being blocked in Congress. And who did the Post blame for a failure of will to un-block it? “Obama and his allies.”
Politico agreed, insisting it was “Senate Democrats' failure to recruit to their cause a Republican with gun credibility,” that was impeding the passage of the bill.
Also from the Washington Post:
But the fact that Congress is struggling to pass a law with near unprecedented support -- and that popular proposals such as bans on assault weapons and high-capacity clips have been essentially taken off the table -- indicates they are still losing the battle to convince lawmakers that gun restrictions are a political winner.
See, gun violence prevention advocates were losing the legislative battle because Republicans were once again doing nothing. Supporters of strong gun laws were the ones who failed to change Republican minds. Because, the media premise goes, Republicans as a group are open to having their votes changed and they're open to honest debate because they're sincere brokers trying to get legislation passed. So why can't Obama get a deal done? Why can't he create bipartisanship agreements with a party that doesn't want them?
Let's take a closer look at an almost pitch-perfect example of that press phenomenon. It's from the April 7 edition of NBC's Meet The Press and featured a gun control discussion with host David Gregory, Republican strategist Mike Murphy, Politico's Maggie Haberman and MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell [via Nexis, emphasis added]:
GREGORY: Is this a 2014 issue, Democrats and Republicans, depending on how they vote here?
HABERMAN: I think it is, absolutely. And I think that the White House, if they had really wanted to move on this, would have capitalized on the momentum right after Newtown.
There's a general feeling that they missed their window. And so, yes, it is a 90-10 issue in the polls...
GREGORY: But is it missing their window, Mike, or is it going for too much?
MURPHY: They went for too much.
GREGORY : Assault weapons ban, a magazine clip ban?
MURPHY: They got our the old Dianne Feinstein 45 and started playing that record. They should have gone fast, one bullet right at, metaphorically speaking, the issue of the gun show loophole and background checks. That was the way to win. They got greedy.
And you know, when you win a big election, you tend to get a little cocky and a little greedy, I think that's the mindset in the White House. I think the new chief of staff may be changing that, and I think they blew an opportunity.
But they are looking -- Maggie is right, they have got trouble in 2014 in the Senate. It's a different electorate, much more Republican, a lot of Republican states. People like Max Baucus. You're not you're not going to hear Messina giving in Billings for Baucus,
And so they're looking for wedge votes for 2014. So the debate may move back to politics
GREGORY: Do you see it passing?
MITCHELL: At this stage, they are at risk of not even getting the straw purchasing piece and background checks.
GREGORY ; Which is surprising, because that looked... MITCHELL: Which is so surprising. And the American people are so far in front of their legislators. This is the fact of redistricting and the fact that these are congress people for life. And they don't feel the pressure.
According to the Meet The Press panelists, the GOP was effectively blocking initiatives that apparently everyone thought were going to pass following the Newtown massacre; initiatives like outlawing straw purchases as well as expanding background checks. The GOP was blocking those, but according to the Meet The Press pundits it was Democrats who were to blame, and specifically, Obama.
Why? Because he got “greedy” and “cocky” and tried to pass too much, like banning assault weapons. (The ban was later dropped from the bill now being crafted in the Senate, though it reportedly will be brought up as an amendment.) And he'd “missed the window” of opportunity.
But the pundit logic makes no sense. On the one hand Murphy and Haberman claimed Obama botched the gun issue by wanting to do too much and by moving too slowly. But then the panel agreed that the GOP was stalling even the less-controversial gun proposals. So were they actually suggesting that if Obama had only proposed passing the narrower proposals, and if he'd done it sooner, the GOP would have acted differently; it would have gladly cast off its National Rifle Association bonds and helped pass meaningful gun reform laws?
That kind of naive political analysis makes no sense because it ignores four years of Republican obstinate behavior. Fact: Even today, 14 Republican senators are on record wanting to block any vote on background checks. (Though they seemed to have failed.)
However, note what Meet The Press' brand of blame-Obama analysis did: It gave the GOP's obstructionist tactics a complete pass. And that fits a long-running press pattern.