Commentary Magazine


Topic: 2014 elections

Dem Majority in Greater Peril Than the NRA

There’s no doubt liberals will read the cover story of the latest issue of The New Republic with delight. The piece, titled “This is How the NRA Ends” by Alec MacGillis, claims the failure of Congress to pass any gun control measures this year despite the way advocates were able to successfully exploit the Newtown massacre was misleading. The article is filled with breathless accounts of how families of gun violence victims and other activists have joined forces to create what the magazine terms a viable grass roots rival to the National Rifle Association.

TNR predicts the pressure these groups are exerting as well as the financial clout of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Super Pac — which is already spending big on ads criticizing those senators that opposed the Manchin-Toomey amendment on background checks for gun purchases — has permanently altered the equation on the issue. Not only does the piece predict that another background checks bill will eventually succeed in this session of Congress but seems to predict that this alleged sea change will expose NRA’s vaunted influence as being based on an illusion.

But the problem with this thesis is easily exposed in Michael Scherer’s TIME magazine column on Bloomberg’s targeting of the four Democrats who opposed Manchin-Toomey. Democrats like Mark Prior of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska are in the mayor’s well funded cross-hairs right now but the impact of this campaign won’t win any new votes for background checks or the more far-reaching proposals to ban various types of weapons that the gun control movement will try to implement if that more moderate measure is ever passed. As Scherer rightly points out, attempts to replace those senators with Democrats who will promise to vote for restrictions will only result in victories for the Republicans in November 2014 that could tip the balance in the Senate back to the GOP. If anything, the long-term impact of Bloomberg’s efforts will make gun legislation even less likely to pass in the future.

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There’s no doubt liberals will read the cover story of the latest issue of The New Republic with delight. The piece, titled “This is How the NRA Ends” by Alec MacGillis, claims the failure of Congress to pass any gun control measures this year despite the way advocates were able to successfully exploit the Newtown massacre was misleading. The article is filled with breathless accounts of how families of gun violence victims and other activists have joined forces to create what the magazine terms a viable grass roots rival to the National Rifle Association.

TNR predicts the pressure these groups are exerting as well as the financial clout of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Super Pac — which is already spending big on ads criticizing those senators that opposed the Manchin-Toomey amendment on background checks for gun purchases — has permanently altered the equation on the issue. Not only does the piece predict that another background checks bill will eventually succeed in this session of Congress but seems to predict that this alleged sea change will expose NRA’s vaunted influence as being based on an illusion.

But the problem with this thesis is easily exposed in Michael Scherer’s TIME magazine column on Bloomberg’s targeting of the four Democrats who opposed Manchin-Toomey. Democrats like Mark Prior of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska are in the mayor’s well funded cross-hairs right now but the impact of this campaign won’t win any new votes for background checks or the more far-reaching proposals to ban various types of weapons that the gun control movement will try to implement if that more moderate measure is ever passed. As Scherer rightly points out, attempts to replace those senators with Democrats who will promise to vote for restrictions will only result in victories for the Republicans in November 2014 that could tip the balance in the Senate back to the GOP. If anything, the long-term impact of Bloomberg’s efforts will make gun legislation even less likely to pass in the future.

Unlike President Obama and other Democrats who have hoped to use the revived interest in gun control after Newtown to help their party, Bloomberg’s targeting of Prior and Begich is in line with his non-partisan approach. But by attacking pro-gun Democrats in red states while also taking potshots at Republicans in blue states like New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, Bloomberg is setting the president’s party up for a fall.

MacGillis is right to point out that the gun control boomlet isn’t to be dismissed altogether. The joint effort by pro-gun senators like Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Pat Toomey did get closer to victory than any other gun measure has in more than a decade. Moreover, their efforts, along with the group organized by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, which is also geared toward a moderate pro-gun ownership audience, does give the gun control movement a much broader appeal than the liberal base that has always backed these ideas.

It should also be stipulated that the NRA hasn’t exactly covered itself with glory these past six months. Though its membership numbers have soared and it succeeded in stopping every gun control measure that came up for a vote, it came across as insensitive after Newtown. By failing to embrace an inoffensive measure like that of Manchin-Toomey, it lost an opportunity to defuse the pro-gun fervor with something that would have done nothing to endanger Second Amendment rights.

All that and the willingness of some of the Newtown victim families to be used by the gun control movement in a shamelessly emotional manner will not allow the issue to be pigeonholed. It is possible that they will yet triumph either later this year or sometime next year when another such background checks proposal will make it to the floor for another vote. But Bloomberg’s calling Democrats like Pryor out actually makes this less likely since a reversal would allow opponents to brand him as a senator that takes orders from New York’s City Hall, something that would doom him in 2014.

But the point about this struggle is not whether an anodyne measure like Manchin-Toomey is ever signed into law. Rather it is the next round of gun control — whether aimed at so-called assault weapons or other types of guns — that will be the controlling factor in the debate.

The NRA succeeded in stopping Manchin-Toomey in large measure because even its supporters couldn’t claim that it would have prevented the tragedy in Newtown. Many pro-gun voters and their representatives in Washington also understand that the bland assurances about protecting the Second Amendment they have received from the president are simply not credible. They know liberals want more far reaching measures and will never be satisfied with merely increasing background checks. That will ensure their own not inconsiderable fundraising and activism will continue to be intense. Contrary to MacGillis’ analysis that means members of Congress will continue to view its power as real.

Moreover, the electoral math of 2014 makes it hard to see how anyone would look at the upcoming matches in the Senate and the House and foresee the imminent demise of the NRA’s influence. At the very least, a re-energized Republican base angered by the Obama administration’s scandals will enable the GOP to hold its own next year. But without few if any vulnerable Republicans up for re-election (including Ayotte who will face the voters in 2016) and a plethora of incumbent Democrats on the ballot, a GOP majority isn’t out of the question. Indeed, Prior and Begich (who was elected in 2008 in a fluke caused by the now discredited federal prosecution of the late Ted Stevens) are vulnerable to a liberal challenge in a Democratic primary but they might be strengthened in a general election by Bloomberg’s labeling them as cats’ paws of the NRA.

For all of its mistakes and the increased strengths of its foes, the NRA isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, the more its liberal opponents seek to expand their reach into pro-gun states, the more likely it is that it will continue to ensure that the pro-gun rights faction in Congress has enough votes to block the liberal agenda on guns.

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Who’s Got the Edge in 2014?

Ever since the November election, Democrats have been talking big about 2014. The odds are always against the party that controls the White House in a midterm, but after President Obama’s smashing victory and the surprising Democrat gains, especially in the Senate, optimism about the next Congressional election has reigned in the White House as well as liberal opinion columns.

But the decision of yet another incumbent Senate Democrat in a red state to forgo a shot at re-election earlier this week ought to put something of a chill on liberal triumphalism. While, as the 2012 election illustrated, all assumptions about who has the edge in a battle for control of Congress are bound to be upset by developments that neither pundits nor party leaders can foresee, the odds against the Democrats next year are getting longer, not shorter.

South Dakota’s Tim Johnson was the fifth Democrat to announce he would be leaving the Senate at the end of 2014 and immediately put his seat in play. He joins Carl Levin, Frank Lautenberg, Tom Harkin and Jay Rockefeller among those exiting the arena. Of the five, only Lautenberg’s seat could be said to be safe for the Democrats. Neither of the two Republicans not running for re-election—Saxby Chambliss and Mike Johanns—is leaving their seats in jeopardy for their party. When you add these changes to the existing lineup in which Democrats will be defending 21 seats next year (including a number of red state seats whose incumbents were the beneficiaries of Barack Obama’s 2008 coat tails) as opposed to the GOP’s 14, it’s much easier to chart a path to a Republican-controlled Senate in 2014 than it is to imagine another big year for the Democrats.

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Ever since the November election, Democrats have been talking big about 2014. The odds are always against the party that controls the White House in a midterm, but after President Obama’s smashing victory and the surprising Democrat gains, especially in the Senate, optimism about the next Congressional election has reigned in the White House as well as liberal opinion columns.

But the decision of yet another incumbent Senate Democrat in a red state to forgo a shot at re-election earlier this week ought to put something of a chill on liberal triumphalism. While, as the 2012 election illustrated, all assumptions about who has the edge in a battle for control of Congress are bound to be upset by developments that neither pundits nor party leaders can foresee, the odds against the Democrats next year are getting longer, not shorter.

South Dakota’s Tim Johnson was the fifth Democrat to announce he would be leaving the Senate at the end of 2014 and immediately put his seat in play. He joins Carl Levin, Frank Lautenberg, Tom Harkin and Jay Rockefeller among those exiting the arena. Of the five, only Lautenberg’s seat could be said to be safe for the Democrats. Neither of the two Republicans not running for re-election—Saxby Chambliss and Mike Johanns—is leaving their seats in jeopardy for their party. When you add these changes to the existing lineup in which Democrats will be defending 21 seats next year (including a number of red state seats whose incumbents were the beneficiaries of Barack Obama’s 2008 coat tails) as opposed to the GOP’s 14, it’s much easier to chart a path to a Republican-controlled Senate in 2014 than it is to imagine another big year for the Democrats.

The argument for a Democrat opportunity this year is based on a continuation of the same trends that have helped Obama in 2008 and 2012. They are counting larger numbers of minorities making up the electorate than in the past as the demographic picture of the country changes to help Democrats.

Moreover, the president and his media cheerleaders are genuinely convinced that more than demography is at work to help Democrats. They believe GOP stands on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, as well as their opposition to raising taxes, gives them a near permanent advantage that will be impossible for their opponents to overcome. But as even liberal poll guru Nate Silver noted last week, the president’s supposedly permanent edge on economic issues over a Tea Party-controlled GOP evaporated before the onset of spring.

The president does seem more focused on helping his party in the midterms than he was in the prelude to 2010. But his absence from the ballot that year was the determining factor in understanding the difference between the results in 2010 as opposed to those in 2008 and 2012. Without the much larger turnout associated with a presidential election—especially one in which a magnetic and hugely popular candidate like Obama is driving interest—Democrats are facing odds that favor their opponents.

Just as no one could have predicted the Tea Party revolt that galvanized the country in 2010, we don’t know what factors will sketch the narrative of the next federal election. But liberal assumptions that they can look forward to another cakewalk in 2014 because of the advantages they held in January or February 2013 is the sort of mistake that often leads to partisan debacles such as the one they experienced at the last midterm.

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GOP Shouldn’t Fear Standing Up to Obama

With the sequester all but certain to go into effect at the end of the month, the only suspense associated with the topic is whether the Democratic expectation that the public will blame it all on the Republicans will be vindicated in the coming weeks. So far, polls show them to be largely correct, and should the administration’s predictions of post-sequester doom and gloom come true it may not be possible for the GOP to resist the pressure to give in to the president’s demands for more tax increases.

This belief in Republican defeat on the sequester is based in part on the experience of the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling deadlines, when the House majority believed it had no choice but to fold or face the wrath of an outraged nation. It may be that sequester-related chaos at the airports and the border–to cite two particular departments whose secretaries took to the airwaves in recent days to play Chicken Little–will be enough to stamped the GOP again. Of course, many Republicans are also rightly worried about the impact of the draconian across-the-board cuts on national defense. But integral to the idea that the party give in is the thesis that this confrontation will lead inevitably to victory for the Democrats in the 2014 midterms. But as Stu Rothenberg points out in Roll Call, this is a rather weak argument for those urging Republican sequester surrender.

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With the sequester all but certain to go into effect at the end of the month, the only suspense associated with the topic is whether the Democratic expectation that the public will blame it all on the Republicans will be vindicated in the coming weeks. So far, polls show them to be largely correct, and should the administration’s predictions of post-sequester doom and gloom come true it may not be possible for the GOP to resist the pressure to give in to the president’s demands for more tax increases.

This belief in Republican defeat on the sequester is based in part on the experience of the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling deadlines, when the House majority believed it had no choice but to fold or face the wrath of an outraged nation. It may be that sequester-related chaos at the airports and the border–to cite two particular departments whose secretaries took to the airwaves in recent days to play Chicken Little–will be enough to stamped the GOP again. Of course, many Republicans are also rightly worried about the impact of the draconian across-the-board cuts on national defense. But integral to the idea that the party give in is the thesis that this confrontation will lead inevitably to victory for the Democrats in the 2014 midterms. But as Stu Rothenberg points out in Roll Call, this is a rather weak argument for those urging Republican sequester surrender.

Let’s concede that the sequester is a terrible idea (thank you Obama White House) and the consequences will be awful. The GOP, like the Democrats, was wrong to agree to it in order to get out of the 2011 debt ceiling impasse and they are paying a price for that mistake. But Republicans are right not to allow themselves to be bullied into submission only weeks after being bludgeoned into voting for tax increases with the idea that future deals would be about budget cuts, not more revenue being fed to the federal leviathan. Since President Obama has no credibility when it comes to promises about the entitlement reform that the country so desperately needs, or about making tough choices to reduce expenditures, GOP resistance to his pressure is justified.

But even if this means some bad poll numbers and public pressure, there is no reason to believe that this guarantees anything close to a Democratic takeover of the House next year.

First of all, whatever happens in the coming weeks isn’t likely to seriously impact what happens in November 2014. Twenty months is a lifetime in politics, and there’s no assurance that what seems like a matter of life and death today will motivate voters or even affect turnout then.

Like Rothenberg, I don’t think the GOP can count on historical trends, which almost always show the party that controls the White House losing seats in the midterms, bailing out House Speaker John Boehner and company, but there is also no clear path for the Democrats to give back the gavel to Nancy Pelosi. Partly, this is because there just aren’t many swing seats that present a reasonable hope for the Democrats. Having won almost every seat that was within reach last year, it’s hard to see how they better that showing by 17 seats in the next go-round.

Democrats are arguing that last year’s presidential election decided the question of which party was right on taxes and spending. But House Republicans can claim with justice that they were re-elected too, and their voters aren’t any more interested in increasing the size of government via more taxes and the president’s laundry list of new entitlements and programs to fund than they were a year ago.

The coming weeks may be rough sledding for Republicans, but any talk of the impact of the sequester on 2014 is, at best, premature. If they are inclined to stand their ground, as I think they should, the midterms ought not influence that decision. 

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