How bad is Obama's gun control debacle?
There are several reasons why the president's efforts on the gun control issue failed, but perhaps the two biggest were his arrogant assumptions regarding his own powers, and his refusal to acknowledge that the issue was a constitutional one, not a public safety matter.
Never before had President Barack Obama put the moral force and political muscle of his presidency behind an issue quite this big - and lost quite this badly.
The president, shaken to the core by the massacre of 26 innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School, broke his own informal "Obama Rule" - of never leaning into an issue without a clear path to victory - first by pushing for a massive gun control package no one expected to pass, and then sticking through it even as he retrenched to a relatively modest bipartisan bill mandating national background checks on gun purchases.
It was a bitter defeat for a president accustomed to winning, a second-term downer that may -- or may not -- foreshadow the slow decline suffered by so many of his predecessors. Obama seems to have the public behind him, but it illustrated his less-than-Johnsonian powers of personal persuasion, the possible shortcomings of his decision to wait a month after the killings to present a plan and above all the limits of his go-to "outside" strategy of taking his case directly to the American people.
More than anything, it was an emotional blow to Obama, who was as irritated at the four members of his own party as he was at the 90 percent of Republicans who defeated the bill.
One administration official told POLITICO the White House was especially disappointed with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D), the only dissenting Democrat not up for re-election next year, who refused to go along with the bill even after White House chief of staff Denis McDonough visited her office to make Obama's case on Tuesday.
Still, officials believed Heitkamp would have flipped if they had gotten closer to the 60 votes they needed.
"The president was tremendously committed and emotionally engaged. I watched the president with these families. He was there for them and really felt it," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who worked closely with the White House in the aftermath of the worst school shooting in the history of his state.
"Background checks will happen," he added, minutes after the vote. "This outcome is a delay, not a defeat."
He doesn't get it because he is incapable of believing that others might have a different notion of what "gun control" actually means. Advocates for stricter gun laws refused to acknowledge that their opponents were standing on perfectly legitimate constitutional grounds. In fact, gun control supporters never acknowledged Second Amendment rights except in a completely abstract - and dishonest - way by claiming they weren't coming after people's firearms.
That was never the point to most of the opposition to the bill, although many pointed out how some of the proposals in the legislation cleared a path for future efforts to take guns away from citizens. The dishonest way the bill was sold - that it would make schools safer, that it would keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals, that it would stop terrorists from getting weapons, that we should pass the bill for the children - led to its defeat. None of those reasons - even if they were true - would be compelling enough to trash the Second Amendment.
This debacle - and the coming probable failure of some of his immigration reforms - points to the president's lame duck status but also to his inability at convincing Congress to enact his agenda. Far more concerned with bashing Republicans about gay marriage, he failed to do the hard, slogging work that presidents must do to pass controversial legislation. How many calls to Democrats did he make? How many to Republicans? Besides jawboning at photo-ops across the country, just what did the president himself do to get this bill passed?