I rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to say something kind about New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. In fairness, this is mostly because I rarely, if ever, feel compelled to read whatever it is Dowd has written the Times.
Of all the reasons to attempt to surmount the Times' paywall, she ranks fairly low, having long lapsed into schtick. And as an editor of mine once cautioned, taking the time to critique Dowd comes at the cost of doing hundreds or thousands of more relevant things. I see his point.
But today, I must give credit where credit is due. Dowd, perhaps without intending to, may have managed to do something wonderful, for America.
See, over the weekend, Dowd penned a column titled "No Bully in the Pulpit," responding to the defeated effort to pass a bill that would enhance the current system of background checks for gun purchases. In it, she wrote:
How is it that the president won the argument on gun safety with the public and lost the vote in the Senate? It’s because he doesn’t know how to work the system. And it’s clear now that he doesn’t want to learn, or to even hire some clever people who can tell him how to do it or do it for him.
It’s unbelievable that with 90 percent of Americans on his side, he could get only 54 votes in the Senate. It was a glaring example of his weakness in using leverage to get what he wants. No one on Capitol Hill is scared of him.
Okay, so I never said that Dowd's column wasn't completely, howlingly stupid.
It is that, and much more. She goes on to imagine a scenario in which President Barack Obama strong-arms North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) by making a veiled threat about not helping her to re-election (in 2018!), couched in an appeal to her maternal instincts. She's totally obsessed with an Aaron Sorkin movie from the 1990s.
She imagines that Obama could have leveraged his friendship with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to help him "do something big," despite the fact that previously, Coburn's never let his friendship with Obama get in the way of thwarting the president's agenda. She ignores the fact that siding with the National Rifle Association is a no-brainer/no-consequence scenario for an Oklahoma Republican, and the fact that the offer on the table -- expanding background checks in the wake of the Newtown tragedy -- is not, strictly speaking, doing something "big."
Dowd asks: "Couldn’t the president have given his Rose Garden speech about the 'shameful' actions in Washington before the vote rather than after?" Uhm, sure ... but that would have been pretty strange.
"Those mangy Republicans and cowardly blue dog Democrats could never have resisted that nuclear weapon of American politics, a well timed Rose Garden speech," writes Walter Russell Mead, who spares a few thousand words to pillory Dowd for her Panglossian take on presidential power.
Others have piled on. "Dowd's real problem is that she hasn't kept up with either academic research or simple common sense over the past half century," writes Kevin Drum. "She's still stuck in the gauzy past when presidents really did have at least a bit of arm-twisting power."
The only explanation I can come up with is that Dowd has become enamored with the idealized New York-Washington corridor vision of politics epitomized by the movie she references in her column, and even more so by Sorkin’s classic television series The West Wing. According to this vision, the President is the all powerful leader of government who, with just a little bit of persuasion and a lot of political skill can bend Congress to his will. The problem is that this isn’t how American politics works, or at least not how it works in the real world. You can’t just solve problems by being a “strong leader” and giving nice speeches. If the political winds are blowing against you, then you’re not going to win. In the case of this gun control vote, the political winds were not blowing in Barack Obama’s favor, and that’s why he failed. Dowd’s dream that he could have been some fictional President that could enact the dream liberal agenda are just that, dreams and fantasies.
All of which makes a lot of sense. So, what, then, is the good thing that Dowd has done, potentially, for America? Well, thanks to Dowd weighing in over the weekend, there's the very real possibility that she's single-handedly made one of the dumber strains in contemporary political punditry -- "leadership surrealism" -- unfashionable. To the leadership surrealists, the president's main failing is that he hasn't figured out a way to use the "bully pulpit" to deliver a speech of magical, sentimental wallop, or to facilitate some amount "arm-twisting" hardball shenanigans.
If Dowd has sinned by penning this column, then these are some really unoriginal sins. Her fellow Times columnists, David Brooks and Thomas Friedman, have made a cottage industry for themselves making the exact same arguments -- that Obama's major failing is that he has not managed to find the right rhetorical flourish to weaken the opposition to his agenda. (Of Brooks' similar argument, Mataconis opines that he has "a point.") If Obama would only find the right combination of magic words, the leadership surrealists argue, he would melt the hard hearts of the intransigent GOP, and turn those recalcitrant Democrats away from the incentives they follow to retain their seats. (At least Dowd cited "The American President" as her cinematic inspiration. Friedman cited "Tin Cup," for some reason.)
For spouting the same bilge as Dowd, people like Brooks and Friedman are treated as influential thinkers, and they've amassed many followers. David Ignatius has lamented the fact that Obama hasn't made enough "clear, firm presidential statement[s] that speaks to everyone onboard." Ron Fournier has advised the president to try to give a speech similar to an op-ed he read in the Green Bay Press-Gazette, because it was crazy-magical. And when it comes to strong-arm tactics, you really can't beat Bob Woodward's contention that Obama should just ignore the Constitution.
Look, you really can't blame Dowd for getting into the spirit of "everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn't I?" She's sat there, watching her colleagues grow in esteem making the same arguments, paying little consequence for them. Chances are, the "x-factor" here is actually a simple matter of institutional sexism -- once the same arguments are flowing forth from her keyboard, they suddenly look rancid. The point though, is that this was an always dumb set of contentions to make. I trust that going forward, we won't tolerate it from anyone, and whoever attempts a similar feat of whimsy will have all of the critiques that have been laid at Dowd's doorstep read back to them, verbatim.
I hope, anyway!
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This story appears in Issue 46 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, April 26.