I’ve spent so many years talking about lame ducks in the White House and Congress, and it’s never occurred to me to find out what the heck it means.
It turns out it’s an old English hunting term — something about firing at a duck without quite killing it. In any case, the hobbled duck limps on, at a distinct disadvantage.
In political parlance, this applies to legislatures approaching the end of their terms and presidents grasping at their final shot at a positive legacy.
The defining theme is powerlessness. It’s the end of the road, the end of the year. It’s time to move on to something fresh and new.
But sometimes the ducks won’t comply.
In the scant few weeks since the midterm elections vaulted Republicans into power and humbled Democrats, it’s been interesting to watch lawmakers lean into, not away from, fights.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi picked one with CBS News reporter Nancy Cordes, who asked a pretty straightforward question at a news conference about whether Pelosi had considered stepping down after the Democrats’ midterm defeat.
Pelosi immediately launched into tongue lashing, accusing the Capitol Hill press corps of sexism and ageism — although the reporter’s question did not mention her age nor sex.
On the Republican side, House Speaker John Boehner popped up periodically in front of Capitol Hill microphones to fiercely vow that he would fight the president “tooth and nail” on executive action.
In the Senate, Minority (soon to be Majority) Leader Mitch McConnell aggressively turned aside efforts to scale back NSA bulk data collection, while Democrats blocked an effort to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.
Make no mistake about it; there is a message behind all this assertiveness. Everybody is keeping one eye on those midterm election results.
“If we don’t get 60 votes on Tuesday, in the new Congress we will have 60 votes, “ North Dakota Republican Senator John Hoeven said just before the Keystone vote failed. “And if you just go through the election results, not only did the American people speak, but when you look at the candidates, we have 60 votes for the bill.”
But probably the most muscular pushback has come from the White House, where the president bristles at questions about legacy, apparently because he feels he is not done yet.
So in China, a climate deal is cut. In Washington, an attorney general is nominated. In Vienna, the Iran nuclear talks continue apace. In Las Vegas, the president will stand with soon-to-be Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid to talk about taking executive action on immigration.
In every case, opponents object strenuously. Actual policy debates break out. News is committed.
Everyone at least behaves as if they are paying attention to the voters’ unhappiness with lawmakers who spend too much time dueling to a gridlocked standstill.
This explains why both sides say they only have the American public at heart. Even when it comes to unilateral action to force immigration reform, the president says it’s not about him. It’s about the other guys.
“There is a very simple solution to this perception that somehow I’m exercising too much executive authority,” the president told reporters at an economic conference in Brisbane Australia at the top of the week. “Pass a bill I can sign on this issue.”
Back on this side of the word, McConnell tossed the challenge right back a few days later, saying: “If President Obama acts in defiance of the people and imposes his will on the country, Congress will act.”
Action, or the illusion of action, is key in these rhetorical standoffs, especially when the onus is on someone else.
And the last one out of the water is the lame duck.