Yup, that’s just what the national conversation about gun control needed: A photograph of the president with a shotgun.
I feel so enlightened now. Don’t you?
In case you missed it: As President Barack Obama continued his push for a fresh set of national policies regarding guns in America, he created a micro-controversy for himself by answering a reporter’s query as to whether he has ever fired a gun in the affirmative.
“Up at Camp David, we do skeet shooting all the time,” said Obama. “Not the girls, but oftentimes guests of mine go up there.”
Following understandable skepticism of this claim, the White House released a photograph from last August of the president doing exactly that.
As we try to ascertain a point to this ostensibly silly and irrelevant rumpus, the idiom that springs to mind is “Nixon goes to China.”
In 1972, President Richard Nixon began the process of establishing a formal relationship between the United States and China, a country then still under the iron fist of Chairman Mao.
According to political theory, Nixon was able to get away with this only because he was a stridently anti-communist Republican, as demonstrated in speeches and actions throughout his political career.
Since Nixon could not credibly be accused of being “soft on communism,” the thinking goes, his effort to make nice with a communist regime could be viewed by the public as part of a larger geopolitical strategy that would prove advantageous to the United States. A president without such a hard-line reputation might not be granted such a benefit of the doubt.
In the years since 1972, “Nixon goes to China” has become linguistic shorthand for the phenomenon of a U.S. president behaving against type, either over a matter of diplomacy or domestic legislation.
Whether it was calculated or accidental, Obama in “Skeetgate” seems to be operating under this same principle on the question of gun control.
And he should be ashamed of himself.
Let’s break it down. The point of Obama’s skeet shooting reference was to forge a smidgen of common ground with America’s armed, who resolutely believe the president to be not merely in favor of more robust gun laws, but to be actively in pursuit of undercutting the Second Amendment—of “coming for our guns,” as the ridiculous rally cry would have it.
By demonstrating that he is not as personally squeamish about handling a firearm as his adversaries presume he is, Obama hopes to convince gun owners he is one of them, and that he empathizes with their concerns about their rights.
The “Nixon in China” logic is as follows: Because I enjoy embarking upon the occasional hunting trip, I could not possibly be hostile to the right to bear arms. Therefore, my current gun control proposals do not have ideological motivations, but are rather a mere matter of prudence.
What depresses me about this whole episode is the underlying assumption that the president’s personal gun-related activities matter. That the president thinks he needs to make a personal appeal to convince skeptics of the rightness of his positions.
The campaign never ends, does it?
It would nice, by contrast, if Obama would simply retain the courage of his convictions about the need to reform America’s gun laws, without this hollow attempt to “reach out” to the other side. Who does he think he is fooling?
The unfortunate fact is that this president is never going to convince the far right wing about anything on any subject, and he will simply need to accept it. Obama is not “going to China” on this issue.
Apart from anything else, there is only limited evidence that the “Nixon in China” theory is actually true.
Per example: The unabashedly liberal Democratic dream of universal health coverage did not require a conservative leader to be realized. It was passed into law exactly as one would expect: By a Democratic president supported by a Democratic Congress. Why should a few tweaks to our gun laws—seemingly a much more modest liberal objective—be any different?
As for Nixon himself: We do not know that a president without such a reputation for commie-hunting could not have established relations with China in 1972. We can do no more than speculate.
There are two lessons of history we might consider at present: First, that a great deal of policy is driven by politics; and second, that this does not necessarily need to be so. If a piece of proposed legislation or statecraft is a good one, it does not much matter the political identity of the commander in charge.
Why do we expend so much effort to convince ourselves to the contrary?