Even good leadership couldn’t save the gun control vote


Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is followed by reporters as he walks from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's, D-Nev., office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 9, 2013, after a meeting on gun control. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
Jena McGregor
Columnist April 18, 2013

The failure of the background-checks proposal to pass on Wednesday provided many disheartening reminders about the way Washington works — the power of lobbyists, the dysfunction of the Senate, the increasing inability of public opinion (no matter how strong) to sway politicians facing the threat of re-election, a primary foe or the loss of NRA funding.

Add to that list of disturbing realities the failure of leaders to make a difference.

Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. View Archive

A “lack of leadership” may be a common complaint in Washington, either cast critically across the aisle in an attempt to deflect blame or shouted fairly by voters about the people we’ve elected to lead. It gets tossed about with abandon, as an ostensible cure-all for whatever systemic failure or obstructionist tactic has gotten us into the latest mess.

Sometimes — many times — those levying the complaint are exactly right. Those saying the background-checks amendment failed for a lack of leadership are, in one sense, correct. Any senators who chose to vote against a common sense measure that 91 percent of Americans support because it might not prevent future massacres or because they were worried about the NRA’s ratings are playing politics, plain and simple.

But here’s the thing about the background checks legislation: It did have leadership, at least on several levels. All too often, an issue in Washington is missing emotion and engagement from a president known as being too aloof and too removed. In the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook, President Obama seemed to shed his usually cautious approach to governing, breaking his own rules and displaying the kind of raw anger that’s rare for the typically cool commander in chief. Obama can be criticized for many things, but a reluctance to push forward on gun control is not one of them, at least post-Newtown.

Another common complaint is that our legislators aren’t willing to risk the wrath of their party’s base or the threat of powerful lobbies. Yet the Manchin-Toomey gun control proposal bucked this trend. It had NRA card-carrying or A-rated senators behind it — a very conservative Republican and a moderate Democrat joined forces in a bipartisan effort that involved considerable political risk.

Finally, many policies don’t have a symbolic figure willing to put his or her powers to inspire voters and energize supporters behind an effort. Yet the background-checks legislation had not only the Newtown families but Gabrielle Giffords, the former U.S. representative from Arizona who survived a mass shooting herself. Giffords formed her own group to fight for gun control, penned op-eds and visited Washington to rally undecided senators.

As a political science professor said to the Post’s Dan Balz, “everything was in place. Public opinion. Two centrist senators. A full court press by the president. Astute parliamentary measures by Sen. Reid.” But it turns out all this leadership was simply no match for a Senate that is no longer democratic, legislation that never had a chance in the first place, or a gun lobby whose intensity outweighs even the passion Sandy Hook inspired for change. The disheartening reality of the background-checks defeat is that sometimes presidential might, courageous legislators and inspiring figures simply aren’t enough.

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