[Q]uestions of why the Democratic leadership pushed a bill to the floor that ultimately fell five votes short had some whispering about poor planning. “There is going to be a lot of hindsighting,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who represents Newtown. He didn’t count himself among the critics, though. “We had to have a vote at some point, and I think now is as good a time as any, and we’re just going to be determined and keep fighting.”…
What became clear Wednesday evening is that any momentum the gun-control movement had had in the wake of the Newtown tragedy had been stalled. Democrats remain heartened that the public overwhelmingly agrees with them on the issue of background checks. But they acknowledged that hopes for swift action have devolved into a longer legislative slog.
Gun control advocates have told me the assault weapons ban was intended to be a bargaining chip. Ask for the moon, settle for less—in this case, universal background checks. If that was the strategy, it backfired. For most of February and March, gun advocates focused their criticisms on the assault weapons ban. They correctly observed that it outlawed guns but did nothing to keep outlaws from having guns. And they used the time to organize their base, comprised largely of gun owners who love the AR-15 and its variations. Many gun owners might have supported background checks had they not been distracted by the assault weapons issue, which caused them to distrust gun control proponents even more than before.
The proposal to ban assault weapons also led to the Senate spending precious time holding hearings on the merits of the ban. Given this proposal was going nowhere, why waste the time? If President Obama had pushed for a law only requiring universal background checks—maybe coupled with the NRA’s proposal for more funding for school security—he might have been able to persuade Congress to consider his proposals in February, when Newtown was fresher in our collective memory.
The four-month delay enabled the NRA to rally its troops—and, more importantly, its allies in Congress.
[T]he GOP controlled House was clearly unwilling to pass serious gun control legislation. Anything that got through the Senate would have to be even further watered down in order to get through the House. The administration no doubt hoped that the vote would be a tough one for blue state Republicans and help whip up the base for 2014, but it’s hard to see a serious person being convinced that this legislative process was going to end up making substantial changes in American gun policy.
A principled senator who truly believed that his or her vote on a gun control law would make a real difference on the ground might choose to stake an entire career on one vote. But if the vote in question were more an act of symbolism and sham that real substance, the equation is very different. Is there really any point in throwing your political career away in order to give a few days’ passing satisfaction to New York Times editorial writers?
Toomey, who threw his political weight into working with his Senate friend Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on a compromise to expand background checks to commercial firearms sales over the Internet and at gun shows, said that for him it’s time to move on.
“I did the best I could. I wish it had passed, but the Senate has spoken and these things happen,” Toomey told The Morning Call immediately after the vote on his amendment. “It’s always worth it to do the right thing … no regrets.”
Speaking is physically difficult for me. But my feelings are clear: I’m furious. I will not rest until we have righted the wrong these senators have done, and until we have changed our laws so we can look parents in the face and say: We are trying to keep your children safe. We cannot allow the status quo — desperately protected by the gun lobby so that they can make more money by spreading fear and misinformation — to go on.
I am asking every reasonable American to help me tell the truth about the cowardice these senators demonstrated. I am asking for mothers to stop these lawmakers at the grocery store and tell them: You’ve lost my vote. I am asking activists to unsubscribe from these senators’ e-mail lists and to stop giving them money. I’m asking citizens to go to their offices and say: You’ve disappointed me, and there will be consequences…
Mark my words: if we cannot make our communities safer with the Congress we have now, we will use every means available to make sure we have a different Congress, one that puts communities’ interests ahead of the gun lobby’s. To do nothing while others are in danger is not the American way.
In Giffords’ view, these senators are two-faced, because you cannot truly sympathize with her unless you vote for the bills she supports. But I am a little confused about the purported motivation for this perceived betrayal. Obama and Giffords both insist the senators who voted against new gun controls did so not out of conviction but out of fear—specifically, fear that they would be defeated the next time they run for re-election. If their constituents “overwhelmingly favored expanding background checks,” however, wouldn’t voting for the bill mandating those have been the politically expedient thing to do? And why is opposing the will of the majority a mark of “cowardice,” as Giffords says, rather than a mark of courage?
Furthermore, why would senators be afraid of “the gun lobby” unless they think it can sway voters against them? Isn’t that ultimately the source of the NRA’s fearsome power? But if voters are so easily manipulated, why should we be impressed by majority support for expanded background checks or any other gun control measure? I suspect that Giffords credits the majority with wisdom only when the polls are going her way, just as she credits politicians with integrity only when they agree with her.
If this doesn’t demonstrate the limitations of the president’s political muscle and the influence of his newly minted Organizing for Action lobbying group, I don’t know what does. Yet, despite the embarrassing setback, Obama nonetheless argued that he still held the upper hand, politically: “If this Congress refuses to listen to the American people and pass commonsense gun legislation, then the real impact is going to have to come from the voters.” That couldn’t misread the political environment heading into 2014 anymore. That’s the audacity of mope.
Put simply, the 2014 Senate elections will be fought predominantly on the very turf that is most inhospitable to gun control–Southern and Mountain West conservative states. It’s no coincidence that three of the four Democrats who opposed the Toomey-Manchin bill are facing difficult reelections in 2014 and presumably are attuned to the sentiments of their constituents. Blame the National Rifle Association for the bill’s failure, but the lobby is feeding into already deeply held opposition to gun regulations and a broader sense of anxiety about the president’s and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s intentions–particularly given the president’s past publicized remark about “bitter” rural voters who “cling to their guns and religion.” It doesn’t take much for the gun-rights crowd, significant in these states, to jump to inaccurate conclusions given that history.
And how do the White House or allied groups plan on punishing gun-control opponents? The notion of challenging the Second Amendment Democrats is as fanciful as it is self-defeating. Democratic primary voters in the deep South have significantly different views on gun rights than their coastal counterparts. Even if they support expanded background checks, the chance of landing a candidate running a one-issue campaign against brand-name Democrats like Mark Pryor and Mark Begich defies common sense.
What was so extraordinary about the president’s performance yesterday is that this is the version of himself he’s always tried to keep under wraps. He made his career on sounding reasonable, positioning himself as the middle between two extremes, pretending to afford respect for the arguments of his opponents, and never, ever showing anger. You always knew this was all a pose, but he never fully let loose until yesterday when he vented his rage at and his contempt for his opponents, and after a defeat in the most traditional of all liberal causes, gun control. It’s amazing how he believes that everyone else in Washington engages in politics except for him, even though the way he reacted after Newtown was textbook political exploitation of a tragedy–using the victims and their families to the maximum extent possible and pursuing policy goals that he’d always favored but that wouldn’t have prevented the shooting. In his own mind, he’s the brave and sincere one, and everyone opposed to him is an insincere coward. We already knew all of this about him, but it was revealing all the same.
On the surface it was about the shellacking gun control laws took in the Senate. Make no mistake: while this was a policy loss for Obama, it was also much, much more.
It was the moment the bully gets popped in the nose, and the unexpected sensation of shock and pain leaves him aghast. It was the moment, to use a rather apropos analogy, the mugger finds himself starting down the black void of a .45 barrel in the fist of his intended victim.
It was shock that the glowing, constant press coverage, the lockstep drumbeat on the nation’s editorial pages, the hectoring, lecturing rants from Joe Scarborough and Piers Morgan et al., the Bloomberg TV ads featuring the families of Newtown, the vaunted OFA operation’s push, and all the personal phone calls from President Charm Offensive himself couldn’t move the votes.
And that enraged Obama. His sense that he is uniquely persuasive and that once he “takes it to the people” the argument is over, was directly challenged, and he failed.