Brilliant Pundits Didn't Really Understand the Point of "Lincoln"

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Nov. 26 2012 2:38 PM

Brilliant Pundits Didn't Really Understand the Point of "Lincoln"

A good catch, or couple of catches, by Greg Sargent -- pundits keep citing the new Lincoln biopic to argue something that isn't in the movie at all. Al Hunt and David Brooks interpret the film as a homily about compromise. Everyone else who watches it sees a story about a president who refuses to move from one goal and bribes people to get there. (Actually, Brooks does grok this: "The bill in question here is a constitutional amendment. There’s no question of changing this or that subsection and then wondering how much you’ve destroyed the whole package.")

In 1968, the Fair Housing Bill was stalled in the Senate. The president, [former adviser Joseph] Califano recalls, was told by Senator Walter Mondale that they were hopelessly one vote short of breaking a filibuster. On the list of opponents, Johnson spotted Alaska Democratic Senator Bob Bartlett and remembered that he wanted a big maritime agency project. Johnson called the Alaskan, ordered the agency to give him the project. Bartlett voted to end the filibuster, and the measure outlawing discrimination in housing was approved.

Great. How does that apply to the "fiscal cliff," exactly? It is not "one vote short" from passage. To pass, it needs 218 votes in the House, which is currently controlled by conservative Republicans, and which in January will be controlled by a slightly smaller majority of conservative Republicans.

This speaks to a larger problem with punditry. The impulse, when analyzing a current crisis, is to hark back to history. But today's Congress is not 1968's Congress is not 1865's Congress. In mid-19th century, a new Congress did not take office until the December of the year following the election. (This is why, in "Lincoln," the president is so confident that the momentum for the 13th Amendment will be gone once the war is over.) Until 2006 or so, it was possible to win over the votes of individual members, with no public backlash (certainly not locally), if projects and money were earmarked for their states. In this Congress, as in the last Congress, there is no earmarking allowed.

None of this excuses Barack Obama if he's not spending time working for votes, but this is an odd pundit's malady -- asking why today's politicians can't follow rules that no longer exist.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at daveweigel@gmail.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.