Power Mongers

Another day, another big New York Times piece about the president’s responsibility for the failure of gun legislation in the Senate. This one, by Michael Shear and Peter Baker, seems designed to air the grievances of those who think the White House went too easy on the four red-state Democrats who defected on the Manchin-Toomey bill:

“There have been very few consequences for those that defeat the legislation, and that’s what allows the legislation to be defeated,” said former Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, who retired in 2011. But Mr. Dorgan said that in the modern era, constituent pressure is the key. “Put some real pressure on back home. The pressure back home is more important than pressure from the White House.”

If, however, you are Mark Begich or David Pryor, a Democratic senator facing a re-election cycle in a state where Barack Obama received (respectively) 41% or 37% of the vote in 2012, big displays of resisting pressure–inside or inside–from the White House is precisely what you want. Shear and Baker quote Bill Daley suggesting that blue-state donors withhold donations from Democratic renegades. But the same donors will be under intense pressure to let bygones be bygones if the survival of Begich and Pryor (or Max Baucus) becomes crucial to Democratic control of the Senate in 2014.

Could be the White House didn’t use its leverage with the public or with individual senators as shrewdly as it might have. But the unassailable fact is that the very structure of the Senate guarantees greatly disproportionate power for small, rural, conservative states, a power that is vastly magnified by the routine deployment of the filibuster. There are four theoretical avenues for Democrats to do something about those baleful realities. One is to do what Obama critics often claim he fails to do: play LBJ-style hardball, denying recalcitrant senators roads or grants or prestige event tickets in hopes of boosting the price of indiscipline (in the case of Democrats) or discipline (in the case of Republicans). A second is the opposite approach: finding out what attenuated version, if any, of progressive legislation red-state solons can support and making that the baseline Democratic proposal; this, of course, would enrage progressives nearly as much as losing an open fight. A third is a constitutional amendment to restructure the Senate, which ain’t happening. And a fourth is filibuster reform to minimize the hostile ground that must be taken.

Maybe the Times will get around to a serious analysis of the opportunity passed up by Harry Reid at the beginning of this year to significantly curtail the routine use of the filibuster, perhaps because he didn’t have the votes, perhaps because reformers were divided on how to proceed, perhaps because he wanted to preserve the “right” to obstruct the majority in a future Republican Senate, or perhaps because he didn’t want to be the Leader who profaned the Senate’s ludicrously self-important traditions (though the routine use of the filibuster is about as hoary and revered a tradition as the viral political email). But for the moment, the chattering classes remain more interested in variations on the tired themes of “Democrats in disarray” or the well-meaning but feckless chief executive who doesn’t have his finger on the Sources of Power in This Town.

UPDATE: Now comes the surprising word that Max Baucus, one of those Democratic senators who has been periodically giving his compatriots fits, has decided against running for a seventh term. The same story suggests that former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a more popular figure among progressives and arguably among Montanans generally, is inclined to run for the seat. Those who prefer to look at elections from a national Grand Strategy point of view will note that Baucus is the sixth Democratic senator to announce his retirement so far in this cycle. In any event, Baucus’ distinctive imprint on tax, budget, and health care legislation is one that most of us probably won’t miss.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.