Political Animal


February 13, 2013 11:12 AM Deserving a Vote

By Ed Kilgore

One of the odder features of the president’s State of the Union Address was a certain disconnect between his rhetoric and what he actually proposed to do via Congress. On the broad fiscal front, Obama was asking Congress not so much for a “grand bargain” but for an agreement not to gratuitously screw up the economy with “manufactured crises.” Months of build-up on the need for election reform produced a call for a “bipartisan commission” to work on recommendations for reform (more about that later today). And most strikingly, in the ringing coda of the speech, he marshaled all the emotional ammunition associated with recent massacres of children and the grievous wounding of a Member of Congress to demand “a vote” on new gun regulations.

Tweeting last night, I described this pattern using the old debater’s term of a “plan-meets-need” problem: a dramatic and persuasive challenge for action followed by something underwhelming. During Obama’s first term, many progressives noticed this same tendency and attributed it to presidential timidity, and/or to an irrational desire for a bipartisanship that Republicans had categorically rejected as a matter of standard operating principle. But that’s not an accurate description of the posture Obama took last night: on one subject where he downplayed the possibility of legislation, climate change, Obama’s warning that he would go it alone if necessary is likely, if executed, to create the most intense explosion of conservative fury since the enactment of Obamacare.

As Jamelle Bouie acutely noted today at TAP, Obama is simply reflecting the objective configuration of power within Congress:

When, at the emotional high point of the speech, Obama declared that “Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote,” it wasn’t just a rhetorical flourish; he was alluding directly to the impasse and gridlock that defines Congress. When he promised to direct the Cabinet to “come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution and prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change,” he was issuing a threat to Republicans: If you continue to needlessly block legislation, I will go around Congress and find other ways to implement my agenda. The most representative line of the entire speech, in fact, was this (in reference to a mortgage-reform proposal): “Take a vote, and send me that bill.”
The unfortunate fact is that—with the exceptions of immigration reform and gun control—Congress won’t be taking a vote. Republicans have a direct stake in passing immigration reform—they need to rebuild their standing with Latino voters—and public support for new gun laws is large enough to compel a compromise. For everything else, however, there’s little incentive for Republicans to cooperate.

In a very real sense, the fate of this congressional session (and probably all congressional sessions prior to 2016, given the unlikelihood of a Democratic takeover of the House or the achievement of a supermajority in the Senate in 2014) largely comes down to how much havoc Republicans choose to create. General gridlock may be a best-case scenario. So Obama is working with the facts on the ground, along with the strong probability that his soaring rhetoric on this or that progressive priority is bound to yield some significant disappointment.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Josef K on February 13, 2013 11:37 AM:

    In a very real sense, the fate of this congressional session...largely comes down to how much havoc Republicans choose to create.

    I wish I had an argument involving Boehner and McConnell having a stronger sense of political self-preservation than their caucus, but ironically the former appears tied directly to the latter's willingness to damage to the country. They (McConnell and Boehner) likely fear a primary challenge more than any public displeasure that might result from their pandering to their caucus's lunacy. Neither man appear to have any long-term thinking involved in their calculations, and so they may even invite disaster sometime between now and 2014, just to shore up public resentment against the Administration.

    This isn't going to go well, for anyone. More's the pity.

  • c u n d gulag on February 13, 2013 11:58 AM:

    The Republicans are victims of their own endless cycle of victimization - screaming that they're victims, while forcing others to force them into the angy and petulant victim role that they love, more and more every single day.

    While they screamed about Executive over-reach, after their own "Dear Leader" had perfected the art, in the ACA battle, and afterwards, and now their intrasigence for the past 2+ years, they're forcing President Obama to do Executive over-reach if the nations to move even a 1/10th of a step forward, and not backwards.

    And so, when he continues to expand the power of the Executive that Bush started, they can do what they do best - actually, the ONLY thing they can do anymore - and that's play the victim to that KenyanSocialistFascistCommunistAtheistMuslimUsurping Dictator, and scream and wail, rend of their hair and garments, about the unfairness of it all.

    Who knew that sociopaths and Nihilists could turn out to be such big WATB's?

  • Gandalf on February 13, 2013 12:00 PM:

    Manufactured crisis is the the number one go to play in the republican play book. Don't we all remember the color coded terrorist alerts. Which was on eof the lamest pieces of nonsense ever perpetrated on the american people.

  • boatboy_srq on February 13, 2013 1:00 PM:

    @CUND - now, again and still, the biggest problem with GOTea [mis]government is TABMITWH.

  • Richard W. Crews on February 13, 2013 4:25 PM:

    HAIKU :

    seemingly normal
    crossing some line we can't see
    people can crack

    Because gun control ain't about the criminals. It's about the regular folks who aren't very "regular" and we can't tell - because of our freedom to be whatever. How ya' gonna' tell? I say we can't, so it's the guns, not the people, that we must control.

  • Doug on February 13, 2013 7:16 PM:

    I'm not so certain about just how "uphill" it will actually be regaining the House and retaining the Senate in 2014.
    It seems to me there are five main factors in how well Democrats do in 2014:
    1) the continuing demographic shifts in Latino, women, independent, LGBT and younger voters to Democratic candidates,
    2) the continuing demographic decline affecting Republican voters,
    3) how much GOTV efforts, by either party, are limited to the base or to attracting new(er) voters,
    4) the overall economy and
    5) what sort of candidates emerge from the Republican primaries.
    There's not much we can do about 1 and 2. For number 3, at least in regards to the Democrats, we have to overcome our usual off-year malaise and get out the base. We can nominate candidates that will appeal to independents as well as the base without running a lot of BDs.
    Numbers 4 and 5, are out of our hands, but as of now we should be able to expect a steady, if slow, improvement in the economy, barring any disaster over the sequester. We can also expect that Republicans, especially that may feel the need to shore up their "base", will continue to shoot themselves in their collective feet.
    Although if they're really determined to keep blasting away, I know of some other anatomical targets they could aim at...