If Maureen Dowd’s evisceration manqué of President Obama’s gun control strategy in the New York Times is any indication, Ms. Dowd is in the wrong line of work. She doesn’t understand American politics. She doesn’t know how votes are gained and lost, she doesn’t know what presidents do or understand what powers they have, and above all she doesn’t understand how politicians think.
Column writing is dangerous work and long success in the game can lead to the stifling of that Editor Within who keeps you from looking too stupid in print. A rich self esteem, fortifed by decades of op-ed tenure and dinner party table talk dominance, has apparently given Ms. Dowd the confidence to believe that she is a maestro of political infighting, a Clausewitz of strategic insight and a Machiavelli of political cunning rolled up into one stylish and elegant piece of work. From the heights of insight on which she dwells, it is easy to see what that poor schmuck Barry Obama can’t: those 60 votes on gun control were his for the taking, if he was only as shrewd a politician as Maureen Dowd.
The President needs to get his hands dirty, our genteel and accomplished op-ed writer advises the ex-community organizer and Chicago pol. He needs to get real, get down in the dirt, muck around with the senators and exercise raw power. Don’t make empty gestures and don’t give up, she advises him: fight! fight! fight!
Perhaps because she fears that the President is too stupid to understand what she means, or simply out of her benevolent desire to show her readers just what brilliant political insight looks like, she vouchsafes us some examples. Here’s how she sees the President twisting the arm of North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp:
Sometimes you must leave the high road and fetch your brass knuckles. Obama should have called Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota over to the Oval Office and put on the squeeze: “Heidi, you’re brand new and you’re going to have a long career. You work with us, we’ll work with you. Public opinion is moving fast on this issue. The reason you get a six-year term is so you can have the guts to make tough votes. This is a totally defensible bill back home. It’s about background checks, nothing to do with access to guns. Heidi, you’re a mother. Think of those little kids dying in schoolrooms.”
If only Lyndon Johnson had understood the art of political pressure as well as Maureen Dowd. “You work with us, we’ll work with you.” It’s… brilliant! Reminding her about her six year term… if that doesn’t swing her around, nothing will. “You’re a mother…” This is a set of brass knuckles no one could resist. The NRA must be thanking its lucky stars that a bumbling amateur like Barack Obama is in the White House instead of the arch-politician Maureen Dowd; Heidi Heitkamp would have been putty in her elegantly manicured hands.
This is a politician getting down to what the New York Times editorial page seems to think is a particularly fetching set of brass knuckles: reciting liberal talking points one after another in rapid fire sequence. That’s hardball, that’s brass tacks at least in the mind of Maureen Dowd, a woman who on the evidence of this column could and would teach her own grandmother to suck eggs.
But lest anyone miss the full range of her strategic insight, Dowd gives us another example. This is how she tells us that Obama could have won over one Republican Senator:
Tom Coburn, the Republican senator from Oklahoma, is one of the few people on the Hill that the president actually considers a friend. Obama wrote a paean to Coburn in the new Time 100 issue, which came out just as Coburn sabotaged his own initial effort to help the bill.
Obama should have pressed his buddy: “Hey, Tom, just this once, why don’t you do more than just talk about making an agreement with the Democrats? You’re not running again. Do something big.”
Don Corleone should put it this well. This is how minds are changed, votes are swayed and history is made. Use your male bonding skills for the power of good: “Press your buddies,” liberals, a bright new future awaits.
Dowd still has one Big Idea to share with us: the masterstroke that would have turned it all around and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat:
Couldn’t the president have given his Rose Garden speech about the “shameful” actions in Washington before the vote rather than after?
Yes! Presidential eloquence, better timed. That would have done the trick. Those mangy Republicans and cowardly blue dog Democrats could never have resisted that nuclear weapon of American politics, a well timed Rose Garden speech. (Ms. Dowd also suggested that the President make some gun control speeches in blue states represented by GOP senators; a somewhat more practical suggestion but one unlikely to sway any votes.)
The Times apparently thinks it has readers who find columns like this either useful or diverting, so we say nothing about whether this is the caliber of political thought that ought to appear at the Newspaper of Record. But the paper may want to recalibrate its intellectual void detectors just a bit; it is hard to read anything this vapid without questioning the judgment of everyone involved.
One interesting thing about Ms. Dowd’s description of “hardball” political tactics is just how dainty and genteel her brass knuckle suggestions actually are. A speech, an appeal to reason: there is nothing here about lucrative contracts for political supporters, promises of sinecure jobs for politicians who lose their seats, a “blank check” for administrative backing on some obscure tax loophole that a particular politician could award to a favored client; there’s not even a delicate hint about grand jury investigations that can be stopped in their tracks or compromising photographs or wiretaps that need never see the light of day. Far be it from Ms Dowd to speak of or even hint at the kind of strategy that actual politicians think about when words like ‘hardball’ come to mind. Ms Dowd speaks of brass knuckles and then shows us a doily; at some level it speaks well of Ms. Dowd as a human being that even when she tries she seems unable to come up with an offer someone can’t refuse.
This is more broadly a problem of gentry liberal politics. Gentry liberals desperately want politics to be clean, to be about the “issues.” And they yearn for their heroes to eschew all those nasty tricks of machine politicians. Thus liberal columnists like Dowd give liberal heroes like Obama two contradictory missions: fight the fight cleanly, but win big. Even when she’s buffeting President Obama over the head with her laptop, screaming at him to fight harder and dirtier, she can only think in terms of ineffective gestures, talking points more clearly recited, and speechmaking.
Maureen Dowd will clearly not be in much demand as a political strategist after this column, but the President needs to pay it some attention. Many liberals like Ms. Dowd have extremely unrealistic ideas about where the country stands and how politics work. They genuinely believe that a huge majority (90 percent!) is slavering at the bit to get more liberal legislation passed. They genuinely believe that the presidency is invested with awesome and numinous powers that can translate the will of the 90 percent into sagacious liberal laws without doing anything dirty or distressing.
When, inevitably, reality falls short of their hopes, they don’t re-examine their ideas about how politics work or where the country stands. Instead they blame the President for failing to deliver what he clearly could if only he were willing to try. As Dowd sums up the gun control fight:
There were ways to get to 60 votes. The White House just had to scratch it out with a real strategy and a never-let-go attitude.
Her efforts to describe a strategy satirize themselves; her attempts to translate a “never-let-go” attitude into practical steps amuse. But none of that causes her to doubt the shining truth: gun control would be ours if the President weren’t so pathetic. If Maureen Dowd’s political fantasies cannot be realized, it is obviously because President Obama just isn’t very good at his job.
The President should watch his back; there are a lot of Dowdians out there in Liberal La La Land, and as an inevitably disappointing second term unfolds they are increasingly ready to blame everything they don’t like about the state of the country on what they are sure is his incompetence, his political cowardice and his sloth.