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Why is Obama Forcing Democratic Fight Over Gun Control?

The gun control debate is good for Republicans, good for the White House, and good for Democratic presidential hopefuls, since they can all play to their respective bases. But the biggest losers of the fight will probably be Harry Reid and the handful of Democratic senators up for reelection in red-leaning states. The Hill reports:

Reid’s job is to help move President Obama’s agenda through the upper chamber, but he must also protect his five-seat Senate majority, and gun-rights groups are threatening to go after vulnerable Senate Democrats who back the president’s calls for a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. …

Some Democrats think passage of the 1994 assault-weapons ban was a reason they lost control of the Senate and the House later that year. 

Already, a coalition of 36 groups supporting gun owners’ rights has formed to retaliate against any Democratic senator who votes for restrictions on gun and ammo sales. 

President Obama’s gun control agenda has no real chance of getting through the House. And we all know Reid and vulnerable Democratic senators would be damaged by a vote on it. But Obama is still pushing for a vote–and putting himself at odds with Reid–just so he can have a political showdown with House Republicans that he’s almost certain to lose:

Still, if Obama follows through — and many Democrats privately question whether he will — it would represent a significant shift in his own perception of the presidency.

In his first term, the Obama rule prevailed. The White House, in tandem with a Democrat-controlled House until the 2010 midterm elections, cut complex, much-criticized deals on health care, financial regulation and the stimulus that liberals viewed as too small and too laden with tax cuts to combat the deepening recession.

The complaint by Democrats at the time: Obama was too focused on the mechanics of compromise to maximize the persuasive power of his office.

The push to regulate gun violence seems to be following a different script, more piecemeal on the policy but more consistent on messaging. In general, it augurs a more Reaganesque use of the office, a platform for Obama to shape the process through public opinion — employing the presidency’s unrivaled “power to persuade,” laid out by Richard Neustadt, the political scientist whose views shaped Bill Clinton’s approach to governing.

This still doesn’t make much sense. Americans are split evenly on the gun control issue, largely down party lines, so “public opinion” is not going to pressure many Republicans into supporting it. I also suspect gun rights supporters are more invested in the issue–and at the very least, a more powerful lobbying force–than gun control opponents. Public opinion may be evenly divided, but how many gun control supporters actually vote for their representatives based on this issue?


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