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In today's New York Times, Michael Shear and Peter Baker highlight Democratic Sen. Mark Begich's vote against the gun background check bill as an example of President Obama's inability to "twist arms":
Senator Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, asked President Obama’s administration for a little favor last month. Send your new interior secretary this spring to discuss a long-simmering dispute over construction of a road through a wildlife refuge, Mr. Begich asked in a letter. The administration said yes.

Senator Mark Begich appears unlikely to be punished by the White House for refusing to support background checks. Four weeks later, Mr. Begich, who faces re-election next year, ignored Mr. Obama’s pleas on a landmark bill intended to reduce gun violence and instead voted against a measure to expand background checks. Mr. Obama denounced the defeat of gun control steps on Wednesday as “a shameful day.”

But Mr. Begich’s defiance and that of other Democrats who voted against Mr. Obama appear to have come with little cost. Sally Jewell, the interior secretary, is still planning a trip to Alaska — to let Mr. Begich show his constituents that he is pushing the government to approve the road.

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The story goes on to note that administration officials pushed back vigorously against this narrative, offering two lines of defense. First, that President Obama has been and remains very "engaged" in presidential arm-twisting:

The White House on Monday defended the president’s efforts on the gun legislation, saying he had made a vigorous effort to lobby wavering senators. “He made numerous phone calls and had numerous meetings,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. “And his entire team here engaged in this process completely and thoroughly.”
The second line of defense is that even though the president is twisting arms, there are limits on how much effect said twisting can have in the aggregate:
“President Obama is not Lyndon Johnson, and this is not the 1960s,” said Representative Mike Thompson, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force. Mr. Johnson had large Democratic majorities in Congress during much of his presidency. “It’s a different time and different people, and everyone has their own way of doing things. This president can be every bit as convincing as any president before him.”
The article misses the mark, however, by not pointing out the facts that constitute the 800 pound gorilla in the room. 1. President Obama won the argument as even the article itself admits. The public overwhelmingly supported the president's position on gun regulation. Furthermore, the president's very public use of the bully pulpit moved the polls in his direction. 2. The background check bill received a majority vote in the Senate. It won 54 votes, including 50 Democratic votes. Even if every Republican voted against it, joined with a few Democrats, it still would have passed with Vice President Biden's tie-breaking vote.

The gorilla? THE FILIBUSTER. The article makes no mention of the fact that had serious filibuster reform been enacted, those senators opposed to the law would have had to fight it out on the Senate floor with a real talk-till-you-drop filibuster. With over 90 percent approval for expanded background checks, such a filibuster would have extremely damaging to anyone attempting it. It clearly would have been unsustainable. That is the real story here.

The article highlights Begich as an example to try and paint President Obama as someone who cannot maintain party discipline. But this is the wrong example of that. The vast majority of Democrats have voted with the president strikingly consistently since his term began. If anything, Democrats are more disciplined now than they have ever been. But on an issue like gun control, the Democratic Party has the room and the ability to allow a few Democrats in red states to vote against the party line for greater goals. I personally don't have a problem with Begich's vote. If President Obama is to blame for this defeat, it is only in one or possibly two areas: 1. He didn't push hard and strong for filibuster reform ... that would have been the time to crack down on Dems. 2. The 30 or 40 day delay in pushing for legislative action in the wake of Newtown, allowing the NRA time to organize a successful counter-offensive.

But there is an argument for the president failing to sufficiently punish congressman who go against him, but it isn't his lack of toughness on Democrats. It is his unwillingness to punish Republicans. If the president should be instilling fear, it should be in GOP congressmen and senators. Kelly Ayotte voted against the president's bill in New Hampshire, which President Obama carried twice. It would be a shame if something important to her, a constituent service, a defense or construction contract, etc., accidentally ended up in the shredder. Bureaucratic snafu. Or perhaps one of her biggest industry supporters found itself the target of a carefully crafted but extremely costly regulation. Or perhaps the U.S. attorney could suddenly find his attention turned toward her campaign and contributors or other fodder for bad press back home. Instead, the president and his staff have spent much of his term coddling Republicans and seeking their cooperation with little to no success. They're all carrot and no stick when it comes to the GOP.

The president certainly isn't using all the black ops tools in his arsenal, but the New York Times misidentifies who those targets ought to be: Republicans, not Democrats.

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