President Lydon Johnson has enjoyed a bit of a revamp of his style. He was a master at dealing with Congress. Mainly because he didn't delegate the task to others. When he needed someone to vote a certain way, he made the request himself. He cajoled, threatened, promised things. He did what he needed to do to get the job done. We could use a little more of that from President Obama who appears to avoid that as much as possible.
On April 17, 2013, every single measure aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people failed. The Senate had imposed the rule that any amendment needed to reach the 60 vote threshold to pass. This was done to keep senators from using the amendment process to undermine the efficacy of any bill passed. This is a worthy goal, one worry many people had was that passing a bill that did less than nothing would just give Wayne LaPierre more ammunition (pun sort of intended) to use against any other gun safety measures.
The vote on improving the background check system failed by six votes. Two of them make little sense as Max Baucus is retiring and Heidi Heitkamp has a long five years to go before her next election. Before I get into what these votes against measures that are popular with anywhere between 90 and 95 percent of the American people, I have a request to make of President Obama. No, your job is NOT to babysit Congress. Your job is to lead and part of that is dealing with what is an increasingly childish legislative branch.
We need you to be less of a law professor and more like President Lyndon Johnson. Hell, if you had approached Congress the way President Clinton did, we would not face showdown after showdown over debt ceilings, sequestration and government shutdowns. We are a superpower that looks more like a banana republic and it is shameful. I don't place all the blame at your feet but to absolve you of all of it is to ignore reality.
Senators who showed courage, though I have a hard time calling it courageous to vote for something the public overwhelmingly supports, have seen their poll numbers go up. Senator Pat Toomey, one of the architects of the gun compromise, saw his approval rating go up by 16 percentage points.
Public Policy Polling (PPP) released a new poll this week that looked at the backlash from the no votes on Senators in four states -- Alaska, Arizona, Ohio and Nevada. Senator Jeff Flake (Arizona), seen as a rising star in the party has seen his vote make him the least popular man in the Senate (passing Mitch McConnell). It's easy to see why. Being the home state of Gabby Giffords. The mass shooting that left several dead, forced her retirement from Congress and left her with permanent injuries (she has shown remarkable determination and resolve but to see her struggle is to be reminded how much one horrific event can alter a life permanently) is still fresh.
According to the PPP poll:
70% of Arizona voters support background checks to only 26% who are opposed to them. That includes 92/6 favor from Democrats, 71/24 from independents, and 50/44 from Republicans. 52% of voters say they're less likely to support Flake in a future election because of this vote, compared to only 19% who say they're more likely to. Additionally voters say by a 21 point margin, 45/24, that they trust senior colleague John McCain more than Flake when it comes to gun issues.
And you've probably guessed this but John McCain voted yes on improving background checks.
Neither Alaska senator has fared well either -- Mark Begich (D) and Lisa Murkowski (R -- remember she pulled off a pretty amazing victory by running a write in campaign when the Tea Party and Sarah Palin backed candidate won a primary against her). Murkowski was one of the most popular politicians in the state, her approval rating is down 16 percent since this vote. Begich's support among Democrats went down and if he thought this might make him more popular with Republicans, he was very wrong. They have the same opinion of him now than before this.
Senator Rob Portman (Ohio) saw a total reversal on fortune. He was seen as another rising star after being considered to be the VP candidate (some think he wasn't selected because he admitted to Mitt Romney that is son is gay). PPP had this to say about him:
He's taken a nose dive in 2013. Portman's approval has dropped a net 18 points over the last 6 months from +10 (35/25) in October to now -8 (26/34) in April. Portman's popularity decline has come across the board with Democrats (from 15/39 to 8/50), Republicans (62/11 to 46/19), and independents (28/23 to 24/32) alike.
72% of Ohio voters support background checks, including 87% of Democrats, 73% of independents, and 56% of Republicans. 36% of voters in the state say they're less likely to support Portman in a future election because of this vote to only 19% who consider it to be a reason to support him.
On Nevada, PPP found that Senator Dean Heller's numbers took a more modest hit but they wrote:
70% of voters in the state support background checks compared to just 24% who are opposed to them. That includes 87% of Democrats, 65% of independents, and 54% of Republicans. 46% say they're less likely to support Heller the next time he's up for reelection compared to only 25% who are more likely to because of this vote, and as we saw last fall Heller has very little margin for error.
In conclusion, Senators who voted against provisions that are popular in their state and around the country did themselves no favors. Senator Flake was especially hurt, not just because of what happened in his state but because a personal letter he wrote a victim from Newtown where he gave the impression that he would vote for improved background checks.
PPP concluded, “The background checks vote is a rare one that really is causing these Senators trouble back home,” said Dean Debnam, President of Public Policy Polling. “All five of these Senators, as well as Kelly Ayotte, have seen their approval numbers decline in the wake of this vote. And the numbers make it clear that their position on Manchin/Toomey is a major factor causing the downward spiral.”
This is where President Obama needs to pick up the phone and remind the senators what's at stake -- and it's not just their reelection. His first two calls need to be to Senators Baucus and Heitkamp, nothing will make me understand their votes no. But he needs to call all of the Democrats who voted no and remind them they will be be calling on his Organizing for Action (OFA) next year looking for support in their reelection bids and and he's not going to support them if they don't change their votes. That's four votes right there. Call Kelly Ayotte and Jeff Flake and Lisa Murkowski -- these were popular figures before they cast this vote. Obama does not have all the tools other presidents have had such as earmarks (though that is something that has hurt Speaker Boehner more than Obama) but he has the bully pulpit. Call these Senators out. Remind voters that when push came to shove they voted against the will of their voters and in favor of what Wayne LaPierre wanted -- funny, last year it was Grover Norquist who was the powerful yet unelected guy, now it's LaPierre. We need to return power to elected officials who are accountable.
Mr. President, you are not babysitter in chief but you we expect you to lead. You may not like calling Congress but the time has long past since you stopped puting your personal discomfort ahead of what the country needs you to do.