In the last presidential cycle, Democrat candidates hid their anti-gun animus behind weasel words; Barack Obama’s slam against voters who “cling to their guns and bibles” was considered a major faux pas. Last night’s Democrat debate represented a major break from the past. “It’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA” Hillary Clinton pronounced. Bernie Sanders touted his D-minus NRA rating. Lincoln Chaffee basked in his F-rating. Martin O’Malley celebrated his victory over the NRA to create “gun safety” legislation. Only Jim Webb mentioned Americans’ right to keep and bear arms. Hang on. Support for gun rights is up, faith in gun control is down. So what’s up with the gun control fervor? Bloomberg’s thetrace,org (of all people) nails it. Well, almost . . .
Four things that convinced party leaders that gun reform has become a winning issue is Alex Yablon’s analysis of the Dems’ newfound love of gun control. First up, the death of the LGBT issue as a coalition-building issue. To illustrate the point, The Trace taps the former leader of Young Democrats of America, now campaign director for the Center for American Progress, Emily Tisch Sussman.
Since the Supreme Court struck down state bans on gay marriage earlier this year, “LGBT issues don’t present the same big clear villain,” Kentucky county clerks notwithstanding. Believing they have won on LGBT issues, Democrats need to look for new issues to motivate their base. Sussman believes guns could be that motivator. “Democrats are going to have to reconvene the Obama coalition for 2016, and this has very high interest,” Sussman says of gun policy.
Interesting, no? Effective? Could be. Waving the bloody shirt for gun control, attacking the eventual Republican nominee as someone willing to wallow in the blood of innocents to appease genitally-challenged old fat white racist Southerners, would be a repeat of the previous playbook, where Mitt Romney became an unsympathetic plutocrat. Note: Donald Trump is a sympathetic plutocrat. A strong, clearly laid-out pro-gun stance could blunt the Dems’ appeal to the “statists to the rescue!” anti-gun meme.
Next up: the Virginia theory.
Reform advocates point to the 2013 Virginia governor’s race as a case study in how Democrats can win while taking more strident positions on guns, even in “purple” states with strong gun-rights traditions. In a debate two weeks before voters went to the polls, Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli boasted that the National Rifle Association had given him an “A” rating, while Democrat Terry McAuliffe had an “F.” McAuliffe immediately countered: “I don’t care what grade I got from the NRA … I never want to see another Newtown or Aurora or Virginia Tech ever again.” McAuliffe went on to win the governorship handily. Virginia’s Democratic Attorney General also won statewide office campaigning for stronger gun violence prevention measures.
This is a lot less convincing explanation for the Dem hopefuls’ decision to pimp gun control on the national stage. McAuliffe’s anti-gun rhetoric didn’t change the political dynamic in his state; the huge influx of wealthy Washingtonians did that. Generally speaking, gun control isn’t an issue to convince fence straddlers/independents not to vote Democrat. Nor is a reason for indies to vote Democrat. In short, the Old Dominion’s shift on guns reflects ideological change. It didn’t create it.
For years it was a Democratic shibboleth that the NRA-stoked backlash to Bill Clinton-era gun control measures like the federal assault weapons ban and the Brady background check bill contributed significantly to the party’s disastrous performance in the 1994 midterm elections. Loath to look like the proverbial “jack-booted thugs” out to quash gun rights, the party spent the ensuing years distancing itself from the issue to avoid incurring gun owners’ wrath. Now, many Democratic politicians and liberal commentators are not sure they should be so fearful.
Billionaire Bloomberg’s pet journo would say that, wouldn’t he? Michael Bloomberg is spending millions to position his Everytown for Gun Safety as the anti-NRA. If Yablon wrote that the NRA is even more formidable than it was before the Sandy Hook slaughter and the resulting legislative victory – an idea given credence by the fact that the NRA’s paid membership swelled by well over a million post-Sandy Hook and the Dems’ subsequent mid-term trouncing – Yablon would be out on the street. If Dems aren’t afraid of the NRA’s political muscle, they’re idiots. Just sayin’ . . .
When deciding whether or not to take on the NRA, Hillary, Bernie and the sad sacks flanking them at the debate made ye olde political calculus: risk vs. reward. What do I have to gain or lose by taking on the NRA? Gain is easy. The party faithful love this anti-gun, anti-NRA, anti-gun lobby stuff. Equally, Hillary needed to put some clear air between herself and Bernie Sanders. The gun issue was the only place she could go. As for risk . . .
The NRA has a group of reliable single-issue voters who can be counted on to show up to the ballot box. The thing is, they’re always there. “They’re not going to be any more motivated more than they already have been,” says Emily Sussman of CAP. When it comes to organizing the single-issue gun voter base, Sussman believes the NRA has “hit their ceiling.” Democrats regard those pro-gun voters as all but out of reach, while seeing a gun reform platform as an opportunity to increase their marginal turnout.
Virginia Senator Tim Kaine captured the new calculus when he told the Washington Post that Hillary Clinton has no reason not to take on the NRA: “I think she has no illusion that even if she didn’t say a word about guns, the NRA would be out there blasting her to say she had a conspiratorial plan to work with the U.N. to take everybody’s guns away,” Kaine said. “So why not go head-on on an issue that will improve safety?”
And here’s where the Yablon and anti-gun Dems (which is all of them) have it disastrously wrong. They forget that millions of pro-gun conservatives boycotted the last two presidential elections. If Hillary survives the Benghazi commission’s grilling and the FBI probe into her emails and somehow makes it to the nomination, every pro-gun voter in the United States will do his or her civic duty and vote for whomever the Republicans provide as an alternative.
Should she receive her Democratic coronation, look for Hillary to try to split the difference. She’ll say “I’m a firm supporter of the Second Amendment. It’s the NRA I hate.” Same deal for Bernie or Biden. It won’t work; the proverbial cat’s out of the bag and most Americans (54 percent in 2013) look favorably on the NRA. But that’s what the Democratic nominee will do to try to win the presidency. Watch this space.