Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Fatal Loop

 Here was the recurring tension between Obama the idealist and Obama the politician; between the man who understood that in order to serve and make a difference, you had to be elected, and the one who sometimes resented the compromises that the process required and the advisers who enforced them.
 He repeated that lament at another of our large campaign strategy meetings in November, provoking more than a little anxiety among his team. “There are things I feel strongly about,” he said, “things I’ll want to work on in my second term. Some of them may make you guys nervous. But Axe keeps saying I should be ‘authentic.’ So maybe I should go out there and just let it rip.”
 “Given our situation, sir, I’m not sure we’re in a position to go all Bulworth out there,” Gibbs quipped, referring to the dark comedy in which Warren Beatty plays a despondent senator, on the verge of losing reelection, who goes on a boozy bender of truth telling.
—David Axelrod, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics, 2015
Very quickly after the terrible mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, last week, President Obama took to the airwaves to deliver some impassioned, heartfelt and moving words to the nation and the world. His sadness, anger and frustration mirrored what multitudes were feeling.

But there was something unusual about this particular statement, and it took me a while to put my finger on it. At first I thought the striking thing was how engaged and emotional he was. But then, being an analytical sort, I looked at his actual words. A fair way to paraphrase his remarks is as follows: I am very upset that this happened. These shootings have become routine, and everyone will react to this one in their usual routine way. Including me.

By calling for the umpteenth time for “common-sense gun legislation,” he expressed the hope that someone would finally do something that was not routine. The clear implication was that he wanted someone else to respond in a non-routine manner—because he himself was going to respond in his usual, routine manner.

In other words, he gave remarks that were assured of being well received by people who already agreed with him but which would predictably annoy people who did not. His prediction that nothing would change was thus pretty much self-fulfilling. This was not about bringing people together or solving a difficult problem but—at the risk of me sounding overly cynical—having an issue.

British-American staff writer John Cassidy caught the very essence of this in his New Yorker piece called, all too aptly, “Obama, Guns, and the Politics of Hopelessness”: “[R]ather than resigning himself to the situation, he went down to the White House briefing room and issued one of the most powerful statements that he has delivered since taking office. We should be grateful that he did. Even if it doesn’t do much immediate good, it will be there in the record, to remind historians where the primary blame lies for this ongoing national disgrace.”

Do you see the contradiction in Cassidy’s praise? He asserts that the president did not “resign” himself to the situation and then explains that his non-resignation amounts to mere words. He is overly generous when he suggests they may not “do much immediate good.” Zero immediate good would be a harsher but more defensible assessment. Cassidy actually concedes that this was more about assigning blame than about changing things.

So what should the president do, besides give remarks? That depends on whether you think the continuing pattern gun deaths can actually be solved or at least reduced. A lot of people do not—and they are not without logic and facts on their side. Gun rights supporters regularly point out, accurately enough, that mass shootings like the one in Roseburg would not actually be prevented by the new “common-sense” gun laws that keep getting proposed. Besides, in their view, such new laws are no more logical than restricting automobile ownership in response to car crashes. The president points to the examples of Britain and Australia, but gun violence has not disappeared in those countries. Perhaps the incidence of gun violence is lower than it would have been otherwise, but that is difficult to prove or to disprove.

You do hear the argument that more restrictive gun laws should be enacted—even if they are not very effective—because at least we would be doing something about the problem. Well, why not? But given that the president’s previous attempt at new gun laws, in the wake of the Newtown shootings, collapsed in a Senate controlled by his own party, then what hope realistically is there?

To the president’s credit, he may be doing the only thing that he thinks has a prayer of helping—hoping against hope that the mere power of his own words will somehow change things. It’s not very likely, but at least it was a better response than Jeb Bush’s “stuff happens” reaction.

The old line is that definition of insanity is doing the same exact thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Maybe this president—or the next one—could find something new to try instead of following the usual routine? New ideas on ammunition sales? On mental health monitoring and reporting? Not vilifying those who disagree with him? Anything?

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