By Jeff Greenfield
So you wake up this morning and find you’re president of the United States.
Pretty cool, no? Helicopters and a 747 at your disposal; courtside seats at any NBA playoff game of your choice; everyone stands up and the band plays when you come into the room.
But the job comes with some baggage, and one of the heaviest of steamer trunks is what to do about a political ally—make that three or four of them—who hands you a stinging defeat on a key, emotionally laden issue.
After the Newtown massacre, you put gun control—sorry, you call it “gun safety” now to avoid ruffling red state sensibilities—back on the table. You give powerful speeches surrounded by the grieving families of the kids who were killed at Sandy Hook. You see a gun rights Democrat, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, and a gun rights Republican, Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey draft a bill that provides a kind of, sort of, sprinkled-with-exceptions background check.
And then you see four Democratic senators vote “no.” Three of them—Mark Begich of Alaska, Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas—were up for re-election next year (Begich and Pryor still are, but since the vote Baucus has decided not to run) in states where gun rights sentiment runs strong, and where Obama lost last year by wide margins.
What do you do now? For some on your side of this fight the answer is easy. William Daley, your former chief of staff and a member of the Chicago political family that has always played politics as a contact sport, says he’ll tell the apostates to look elsewhere for campaign contributions.
Some of your own supporters make a different point. They say you’re too soft, unwilling to back a senator up against the wall, stick your face in his (or hers), and get the vote you want—the way Lyndon Johnson used to do.
But you’ve got other considerations to think about. Next years’ midterms are going to be dicey under any circumstances, at least if history is a guide. Presidents in their sixth year almost always find their party losing seats in the Congress. With the retirement of Democrats in tough states such as South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana (Obama performed dismally in all three last year), your party’s hold on the Senate is in jeopardy. Cutting two incumbent Democrats loose significantly raises the chances that your party will lose the Senate. And if that happens, you can say goodbye to your domestic agenda, not to mention your federal judgeship nominations.
What you’re facing, it turns out, is the same dilemma that any president, any major officeholder faces: How much are you willing to live with in order to pursue a broader agenda?
FDR had to deal with Southern segregationists—and outright racists—who held power in Congress, so he had to yield to that power in order to get his New Deal legislation passed. As the Digital History website tells it: "Most New Deal programs discriminated against blacks. The NRA, for example, not only offered whites the first crack at jobs, but authorized separate and lower pay scales for blacks. The Federal Housing Authority (FHA) refused to guarantee mortgages for blacks who tried to buy in white neighborhoods, and the CCC maintained segregated camps. Furthermore, the Social Security Act excluded those job categories blacks traditionally filled.”
JFK faced the same ugly reality: In order to get a black candidate approved for a federal judgeship, he had to name an ally of Mississippi Sen. James Eastland to the federal bench. That judge delighted in calling black civil rights demonstrators “chimpanzees”—and worse—but Kennedy paid that price.
So what do you do, Mr. (or Madame) President? Do you offer an object lesson to other members of your party by telling the trio of defecting senators to take a hike as a way of saying, “If you desert me on a big issue, you will pay the price?”
Or do you decide to swallow your anger and cheerfully hit the campaign trail next year to save this trio, because the price of losing the Senate is just too high?
You make the call.