Commentary Magazine


Topic: 2014 midterm election

Midterms Were About Something: An Anti-Obama Wave

For months we were told that this was the “Seinfeld election”—a race about nothing. And most pundits also seemed to think that despite the clearly favorable terrain for Republicans in the Senate, this would not be a wave election along the lines of the big Democratic victory of 2006 and the GOP landslide of 2010. Both assumptions were wrong. The 2014 midterms were most definitely about something and that something was dissatisfaction with President Obama that created yet another historic wave.

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For months we were told that this was the “Seinfeld election”—a race about nothing. And most pundits also seemed to think that despite the clearly favorable terrain for Republicans in the Senate, this would not be a wave election along the lines of the big Democratic victory of 2006 and the GOP landslide of 2010. Both assumptions were wrong. The 2014 midterms were most definitely about something and that something was dissatisfaction with President Obama that created yet another historic wave.

By the time the dust settles after the Louisiana Senate runoff, it’s likely the Republicans will have won a 54-seat Senate majority, increased their stranglehold in the House to a level unseen since before World War Two, and picked up several governorships, including some in deep blue states like Massachusetts, Illinois, and Maryland.

This was a surprise for a number of reasons, chief of which was that the polls were mostly wrong. Last week I wrote about the complaints of liberals that polls showing the election as a virtual tie were skewed in favor of the Republicans because they were undercounting Hispanics and other minorities. But in fact, as political stat guru Nate Silver points out on his FiveThirtyEight blog, the polls actually had a pro-Democrat bias ranging from 4 to 12 points in states around the country.

But once we set aside the arguments about how and why the predictions were off, three things must be acknowledged:

1. There should be no doubt that this election must be considered a wave election in very much the same category as 2006 and 2010.

2. The reason for the wave was a broad dissatisfaction with President Obama.

3. The size and scope of the GOP victory and the failure of the Democrats to replicate the Obama coalitions that won in 2008 and 2012 should shake their confidence that it can be easily reconstructed in 2016 for Hillary Clinton.

The reason why so many people doubted it would be a wave had to do with the fact that congressional Republicans had negative favorability ratings that were even worse than the terrible poll numbers given President Obama. But those who assumed that these two factors would, at best, cancel each other out forgot that it’s the president who runs the country and must bear the responsibility for government dysfunction, not a divided Congress.

Examining the state-by-state results, we see almost across the board that Democrats underperformed when compared to 2012. Races that were supposed to be neck and neck like those in Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, and Georgia all turned out to be a near or actual GOP landslide. They will try to put this down to the problems of getting their voters out for a midterm but this underestimates their problems.

The president won in 2012 with better than 50 percent of the vote. But with his popularity ratings down to approximately 40 percent, the only way to understand the results is to realize that approximately one in five of his past supporters were so disillusioned with his performance and either stayed home on Tuesday or voted for Republicans. This happened in spite of the Democrats’ vaunted ground game that was supposed to compensate for the drawbacks of a second term president’s doldrums and add two to three points to their totals.

While it is true that overall turnout was down when compared to the last presidential election, in many states, the number of African-Americans who voted met the Democrats’ expectations. If young people, women, and Hispanics didn’t follow suit, it’s not just because the midterms are better suited to Republicans but because the leader of the Democratic Party has largely lost the faith of many of those who swept him to office on a near-messianic hope and change campaign. Though the New York Times is already telling us that the president is merely irritated with the results and doesn’t regard it as a repudiation of his presidency, that is the only reasonable conclusion to draw from this election.

Finally, the extent of the Republican victory debunks the Democrats’ pre-election sour grapes arguments that contended that even a loss in 2014 wouldn’t impact their ability to win again in the next presidential year in 2016.

It is true that Democrats have excelled in presidential years when compared to midterms in the last two such cycles. But those Democratic waves in 2008 and 2012 were mostly the function of the historic candidacies of Obama and not necessarily a reflection of the party’s appeal when he wasn’t on the ballot.

The ability of Republicans to be competitive and to even win governorships in blue states such as Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois and purple states like Wisconsin also shows that the GOP ground game has caught up to that of the Democrats. This also undermines assumptions that Republicans don’t have the ability to expand their map in 2016 with the right candidate at the top of their ticket.

So long as the president remained popular it was possible for Democrats to assume that demography would determined the destiny of future elections. But unhappiness with Obama cut the legs out of the president’s coalition and sent a message that his putative Democratic successor shouldn’t be confident about replicating his 2012 numbers when she runs for president. In that sense, this year’s anti-Obama wave shakes the foundation of the liberal media’s conventional wisdom about the political balance of power. Republicans will have plenty of opportunities to both help or hurt their cause in the next two years based on their performance in Congress. But heading into the 2016 campaign — which starts now — a midterm election that was both a wave and very much about something shows that the supposedly permanent Democratic advantage in national elections may already have started to disappear.

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Democrats’ Pitiful Premature Sour Grapes

Faced with a likely defeat in tomorrow’s midterm elections, some Democrats are in denial and predict an unlikely victory. Others have already started to form the usual circular firing squads, pointing their fingers at either an unpopular President Obama or those politicians that tripped over themselves in embarrassing efforts to disassociate themselves from the administration. But perhaps most telling are those choosing to dismiss the significance of tomorrow’s results even before they happen. Trying to deny the inevitable or to shift blame for it when defeat happens isn’t productive but nevertheless must be termed normal political behavior. The greatest danger for Democrats in the days following their likely loss of the Senate, however, is to pretend that a midterm disaster brings with it no hard lessons for the defeated.

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Faced with a likely defeat in tomorrow’s midterm elections, some Democrats are in denial and predict an unlikely victory. Others have already started to form the usual circular firing squads, pointing their fingers at either an unpopular President Obama or those politicians that tripped over themselves in embarrassing efforts to disassociate themselves from the administration. But perhaps most telling are those choosing to dismiss the significance of tomorrow’s results even before they happen. Trying to deny the inevitable or to shift blame for it when defeat happens isn’t productive but nevertheless must be termed normal political behavior. The greatest danger for Democrats in the days following their likely loss of the Senate, however, is to pretend that a midterm disaster brings with it no hard lessons for the defeated.

In recent days, the New York Times provided its liberal readership with a trifecta of midterm denial. But though these attempts to salve Democratic wounds that had not yet started bleeding were exactly what the paper’s readers want, they are the worst kind of medicine for a political party.

The most absurd was an op-ed by a Duke University professor of public policy and one his students. In it David Schanzer and Jay Sullivan, a junior at the school, argue that it is time to abolish the midterms. According to them, the exercise of allowing the people to have their say about Congress every two years is a nuisance. They say it is a big waste of time that forces members to spend too much time raising money and fundraising. But the real reason they don’t like it is that lately Republicans have done better at them because congressional Democrats don’t motivate the same kind of turnout from those with a marginal interest in politics, as Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012. Schanzer and Sullivan don’t like the “whiter, older and more educated” midterm electorate so they think the best thing is to extend House terms to four years from two and change senators from having six years in office to either four or eight (!) before they have to face the voters.

Like all efforts to change the Constitution in order to manipulate the system to immediate partisan advantage, this scheme is a farce. The reason why the Founders wanted frequent elections for the House is that they rightly believed one house of Congress should be more reflective of the political passions of the moment while the other would be more reflective of long-term concerns. The pair from Duke wish to sacrifice this laudable aim because it doesn’t currently help the party they seem to favor without remembering that it could just as easily flip to help the Democrats as it has at times in the past. While I don’t think many serious people will pay much attention to this nonsense, it does illustrate the willingness of many on the left to do anything to somehow game the system in their favor.

While that piece was just plain foolish, more destructive was the explanation for the likely Democratic loss from Times columnist Charles Blow. The writer tends to view virtually every issue through a racial lens, so it is no surprise that this extreme liberal thinks the Democrats’ big problem remains racial animus toward President Obama. He agrees with Obama that the reason for criticism of his administration is that there are “some folks who just really dislike me because they don’t like the idea of a black president.” Since black support for Obama has not wavered throughout his presidency, Blow naturally assumes that the dropoff elsewhere must be due to racism, something that is accentuated by the Democrats’ reliance on huge turnouts from African-American voters to remain competitive.

Racism still exists in America but this is, of course, the same president who won clear majorities in two presidential elections in which a lot more white people voted than blacks. But despite these historic victories, he prefers to blame his troubles on irrational hatred rather than face the facts that a lot of people have buyer’s remorse about reelecting him after a record of failure in the last two years. While Democrats have resorted to race-baiting this fall in what may prove to be a futile effort to increase black turnout, the party would be well advised to distance itself from the politics of racial grievance once the dust settles. Playing to your base is important, but, as Republicans have shown us, doing so exclusively is a formula for electoral disaster.

But perhaps Nate Cohn in the Times’s Upshot section illustrated the most dangerous variety of Democratic thinking in his piece. In it, he gives us the ultimate sour grapes interpretation by saying that even if the GOP wins in key battleground states outside of their southern comfort zone, it won’t be a big deal if it is a close margin. His point is that since Democratic turnout will inevitably be far greater in 2016, anything short of a GOP landslide means the next presidential election will repeat the pattern of 2010 and 2012 in which a Republican win was followed by an impressive Democratic victory.

While it is true that Democrats have in recent years tended to do better in presidential years, that is mostly the function of a singularly historic figure named Barack Obama. Though the party hopes Hillary Clinton will perform just as well as the putative first female president succeeding the first African-American, her poor political skills (illustrated again last week) make that a chancy proposition. The thing about politics is that it changes all the time. Any assumptions about the next election based on the last few is, in this case, another instance of wishful thinking on the part of the left, not a sober analysis.

What happened this year is that Republicans learned some of their lessons from the past few cycles, nominated good candidates, and stayed on message. Democrats thought they could survive the downturn in Obama’s popularity by playing the same tired themes about a war on women and racism but are finding that it didn’t work as well as the last time. If they lose this week, Cohn’s advice might lead them to think that they have no need to re-evaluate that mistake but should, instead, merely do more of the same in hope of a better audience in 2016.

Whatever happens tomorrow, what the loser must do is to take a hard look at their defeats, and draw the proper conclusions. If Democrats emerge on Wednesday putting it all down to racism or the accident of a midterm, they will be setting themselves up for a far worse surprise in 2016 when conditions and turnout factors may not be as favorable for them as they think.

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Delay Can’t Avert ObamaCare Crackup

After years of critics predicting that ObamaCare was too cumbersome and intrusive to implement without causing major dislocations for the American economy and workers, that opinion was finally confirmed by what we in the media would, in another context, probably term a highly placed government source: the Obama administration. Yesterday afternoon’s announcement that implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to require businesses with more than 50 employees to offer them health insurance or face crippling fines will be put off for a full year until 2015 rather than being rolled out in January 2014 is the first official signal that even the White House is now aware that ObamaCare is a disaster that can only be managed rather than averted. Though the administration says the rest of the president’s signature health care plan—including the individual mandate to buy insurance and the creation of state insurance exchanges—will still be put into effect on schedule, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that even its supporters are coming to grips with the fact that the law is a mess.

It should be remembered that the original schedule for ObamaCare implementation was wisely crafted with an eye on the president’s reelection. Though passed in 2010, the law was not to be put into effect until after President Obama was safely reelected in 2012, meaning that the devastating impact on employment and on the cost of insurance for many Americans was not an issue last year. Instead, Obama was able to claim that he had merely pushed for a measure that would ensure more people were insured without having to be held accountable for the impact this system had on everyone else. The same political motivation appears to be behind the decision to put off the business mandate since a postponement will make it harder for Republican critics to claim that ObamaCare is sinking the economy and causing layoffs during next year’s midterm elections.

It’s not clear whether that will help many Democrats next year. Nor can we be certain just how effective a campaign focused on stopping ObamaCare will be for the GOP. But we do know that the ObamaCare crackup is inevitable and will be felt throughout the economy once it is in place. What this first official indication of distress tells us is that no delay in implementation will be long enough to avert the looming economic disaster that is ObamaCare.

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After years of critics predicting that ObamaCare was too cumbersome and intrusive to implement without causing major dislocations for the American economy and workers, that opinion was finally confirmed by what we in the media would, in another context, probably term a highly placed government source: the Obama administration. Yesterday afternoon’s announcement that implementation of the Affordable Care Act’s mandate to require businesses with more than 50 employees to offer them health insurance or face crippling fines will be put off for a full year until 2015 rather than being rolled out in January 2014 is the first official signal that even the White House is now aware that ObamaCare is a disaster that can only be managed rather than averted. Though the administration says the rest of the president’s signature health care plan—including the individual mandate to buy insurance and the creation of state insurance exchanges—will still be put into effect on schedule, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that even its supporters are coming to grips with the fact that the law is a mess.

It should be remembered that the original schedule for ObamaCare implementation was wisely crafted with an eye on the president’s reelection. Though passed in 2010, the law was not to be put into effect until after President Obama was safely reelected in 2012, meaning that the devastating impact on employment and on the cost of insurance for many Americans was not an issue last year. Instead, Obama was able to claim that he had merely pushed for a measure that would ensure more people were insured without having to be held accountable for the impact this system had on everyone else. The same political motivation appears to be behind the decision to put off the business mandate since a postponement will make it harder for Republican critics to claim that ObamaCare is sinking the economy and causing layoffs during next year’s midterm elections.

It’s not clear whether that will help many Democrats next year. Nor can we be certain just how effective a campaign focused on stopping ObamaCare will be for the GOP. But we do know that the ObamaCare crackup is inevitable and will be felt throughout the economy once it is in place. What this first official indication of distress tells us is that no delay in implementation will be long enough to avert the looming economic disaster that is ObamaCare.

The excuse we’re hearing from the administration is that the extra year will somehow make it easier for businesses to comply with a system that is so complex that few have much confidence that they can navigate it with assurance. Given the potentially catastrophic penalties that the government can assess against a business that it deems to be not in compliance with the law, it is little surprise that many are contemplating changes that may drastically reduce the number of full-time employees, thus dealing a devastating blow to employment in the name of granting insurance to all.

Rather than this move being, as Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett claimed yesterday, merely an effort to “get this right,” there’s little doubt the decision was based on the idea that postponing implementation will function as a reprieve for Democrats next year. Americans are not likely to fully grasp just how intrusive the law is or how badly it will affect the economy until all parts of it are enforced. But whether that realization comes before the midterms or after them, the day when most Americans understand just how badly this massive expansion of government power will impact their lives is not long in coming. Putting off the moment when the backlash against ObamaCare is truly felt in Washington until after 2014 will not make it any less potent.

This move should encourage Republicans to keep chipping away at the law and to try and stop it via funding cuts or any other measure (such as preventing the Internal Revenue Service from being placed in control of much of the penalties to be assessed) they can try to pass. The assumption on the part of the administration has always been that once this law is functioning it will be too late to repeal it no matter how angry it makes some people. But what yesterday’s announcement tells us is that even the White House is starting to understand that they may have made a drastic miscalculation about how awful the reality of life under ObamaCare will be.

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Will Grief and Rage on Guns Help Dems?

At the White House yesterday afternoon, President Obama did not seek to disguise his anger about the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey amendment on background checks for gun purchases. The stage-managed ceremony, in which the families of the victims of the Newtown massacre were paraded along with former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, was intended to fuel a backlash against the 42 Republicans and four Democratic members of the U.S. Senate who voted against the measure. The 46 no votes that prevented the adoption of the amendment were portrayed as the product of cowardice and the malign influence of the National Rifle Association and its allies who had thwarted the will of the overwhelming majority of Americans that polls say support expanded background checks.

The president’s threats—amplified elsewhere in the liberal media—made it clear he thinks the American people would soon rise up and smite the recalcitrant opponents of gun control. The decision of gun rights advocates not to embrace an inoffensive measure like Manchin-Toomey, which would not infringe on the Second Amendment, will help keep this issue alive for the 2014 midterms. We can expect the president to continue trotting out the Newtown families at every opportunity. But now that the Senate has effectively ended any chance of new gun legislation, the question is whether this vote will actually give the president and his party the sort of leverage in the 2014 midterms that could not only change the result on guns but also give Democrats the control of Congress that Obama wants to complete his legacy. Though liberals, anticipating a campaign fueled by rage and grief and funded by billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, think it will and conservatives are assuming it will flop, the answer is a bit more complicated than either side assumes.

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At the White House yesterday afternoon, President Obama did not seek to disguise his anger about the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey amendment on background checks for gun purchases. The stage-managed ceremony, in which the families of the victims of the Newtown massacre were paraded along with former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, was intended to fuel a backlash against the 42 Republicans and four Democratic members of the U.S. Senate who voted against the measure. The 46 no votes that prevented the adoption of the amendment were portrayed as the product of cowardice and the malign influence of the National Rifle Association and its allies who had thwarted the will of the overwhelming majority of Americans that polls say support expanded background checks.

The president’s threats—amplified elsewhere in the liberal media—made it clear he thinks the American people would soon rise up and smite the recalcitrant opponents of gun control. The decision of gun rights advocates not to embrace an inoffensive measure like Manchin-Toomey, which would not infringe on the Second Amendment, will help keep this issue alive for the 2014 midterms. We can expect the president to continue trotting out the Newtown families at every opportunity. But now that the Senate has effectively ended any chance of new gun legislation, the question is whether this vote will actually give the president and his party the sort of leverage in the 2014 midterms that could not only change the result on guns but also give Democrats the control of Congress that Obama wants to complete his legacy. Though liberals, anticipating a campaign fueled by rage and grief and funded by billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, think it will and conservatives are assuming it will flop, the answer is a bit more complicated than either side assumes.

For all the talk being heard today about the anger of the American people about their will being thwarted by the nefarious maneuverings of the NRA, the news landscape the day after the defeat of the gun bill illustrates the problem with assuming that one issue can dominate the public consciousness. As much as the president and his media cheerleaders would like to assume that a Newtown victims-fueled fury can transform American politics, less than 24 hours later the gun issue is competing with other stories that are more compelling, such as the Boston terror attack and the massive deaths and damage that resulted from the fertilizer factory explosion in Texas. As much as many Americans are still deeply moved by Newtown and most think Manchin-Toomey made sense, the lines on gun issues are still largely drawn on regional and ideological lines that have not budged much in the past few months.

As Josh Kraushaar points out in the National Journal today, the electoral math in 2014 favors gun rights advocates, not President Obama and his allies. With so many Senate Democrats up for re-election in red states where guns remain popular, it’s hard to see how liberals will be able to harness the emotions of Newtown to elect people who will change the numbers on such issues. The fact that the amendment to the bill proposed by Texas Senator John Cornyn about states respecting each other’s concealed carry permits won more bipartisan support than Manchin-Toomey–although it, too, failed–is telling.

Red state Democrats, including the four who opposed Manchin-Toomey, may face primary challenges from the left. But the prospects of those senators being replaced by pro-gun control liberals are virtually non-existent, no matter how much money Bloomberg pours into those races. Nor is it likely that Republicans in the south or west are spending too much time worrying about Democrats beating them by waving the bloody shirt of Newtown.

But Republicans should not be too sanguine about the political landscape next year. They have been underestimating Obama’s appeal for years and next year may be no exception. What the president may be able to do next year in a campaign that will in part be aided by gun-violence victims’ families is to help increase turnout among the Democratic base that might change races in some states and hurt the GOP’s chances of winning back the Senate while holding onto the House.

The right is right to point out that many of the arguments being used by the president on guns are specious. The idea that al-Qaeda terrorists will be enabled to buy guns without background checks is pure baloney. And the premise that the Newtown victim families have the standing to impose their views on guns on the country even if the measures they support would not have made a difference in stopping the murders at the Sandy Hook Elementary School is also unfair.

However, conservatives would do well to get used to seeing those families, as they will be a constant presence on the campaign trail in the next two years. Any assumption that they will not help the president make political hay with his orchestrated rage may prove premature.

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Obama, NRA Big Winners in Gun Vote

The Senate voted this afternoon on the Manchin-Toomey bipartisan compromise amendment on background checks for weapon purchases, and the result was no surprise. The measure got 54 votes, six short of the total needed for an amendment to be tacked onto the existing Democratic bill. While the Senate will go on talking about the issue, this vote closes the chapter on the four-month-long push for gun control that was launched by President Obama after the Newtown massacre. The concept pushed by moderate West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and conservative Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey was the only possible addition to the roster of existing gun laws that had a prayer of becoming law. But if even this idea couldn’t be passed in the Democrat-run Senate, it’s self-evident that there is no possible proposal that could be agreed upon by both houses of Congress.

That means the National Rifle Association, which vowed to fight to the last against even a moderate expansion of background checks, let alone a ban on assault weapons or large ammunition clips that Democrats want, will have a valid claim to be the big winner of this legislative battle. But they need to make room in the winner’s circle for their arch foe, President Obama. By convincing all but four of the Senate Republican caucus to oppose Manchin-Toomey, the NRA spiked an inoffensive measure that could have given the GOP cover against charges that it obstructed any movement on guns after Newtown. That’s a gift that President Obama, who is hoping to grab back control of Congress next year, will gratefully accept.

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The Senate voted this afternoon on the Manchin-Toomey bipartisan compromise amendment on background checks for weapon purchases, and the result was no surprise. The measure got 54 votes, six short of the total needed for an amendment to be tacked onto the existing Democratic bill. While the Senate will go on talking about the issue, this vote closes the chapter on the four-month-long push for gun control that was launched by President Obama after the Newtown massacre. The concept pushed by moderate West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and conservative Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey was the only possible addition to the roster of existing gun laws that had a prayer of becoming law. But if even this idea couldn’t be passed in the Democrat-run Senate, it’s self-evident that there is no possible proposal that could be agreed upon by both houses of Congress.

That means the National Rifle Association, which vowed to fight to the last against even a moderate expansion of background checks, let alone a ban on assault weapons or large ammunition clips that Democrats want, will have a valid claim to be the big winner of this legislative battle. But they need to make room in the winner’s circle for their arch foe, President Obama. By convincing all but four of the Senate Republican caucus to oppose Manchin-Toomey, the NRA spiked an inoffensive measure that could have given the GOP cover against charges that it obstructed any movement on guns after Newtown. That’s a gift that President Obama, who is hoping to grab back control of Congress next year, will gratefully accept.

It is true that, as I wrote yesterday, liberals like Obama deserve some of the credit for helping convince conservatives to stay away from Manchin-Toomey. By making it clear that they would never stop pushing for weapons bans and other efforts that can be construed as an attack on the Second Amendment, Democrats provided useful ammunition to an NRA campaign that treated any measure, no matter how reasonable, as the thin edge of the wedge toward infringement of gun rights. It was this belief that lent weight to the efforts of the lobby and its allies to convince Republicans that the benefits of backing Manchin-Toomey wouldn’t be worth the electoral risk it represented, especially in pro-gun red states.

But the Republican decision not to embrace Manchin-Toomey is a strategic mistake that won’t help them next year.

While the NRA is right to assert that Manchin-Toomey wouldn’t have ended the push for gun control, it would have effectively shelved the issue until a new Congress takes office in January 2015. And it would have enabled Republicans to say they had protected Second Amendment rights while also giving the lie to any Democratic assertion that they had obstructed a post-Newtown consensus about doing something about guns.

Will this make a crucial difference in November 2014? We can’t know yet, and it should be admitted that the NRA and its backers have reason to claim that no Republican will be defeated in an otherwise red state because they opposed an assault weapons ban or even by closing the gun show loophole on background checks that Manchin-Toomey would have achieved. The midterm electorate may resemble that of 2010 more than 2012, and the large number of vulnerable or open Democratic Senate seats also tilts the math in the GOP’s favor.

But Republicans should understand that by stonewalling a background checks law, they have handed the Democrats a cudgel with which they will be beaten relentlessly for the next year and a half. The GOP can complain all it wants about media bias, the exploitation of the Newtown victims by the president and the fact that none of the proposed new gun laws would have prevented another Newtown. The use of the victims of the Newtown victim families — as President Obama did again this afternoon after the vote — may seem exploitive to Republicans but it is also the sort of thing that cannot be directly answered by gun control opponents.

Instead of taking the air out of the Democratic balloon, they’ve re-inflated it. Their assumption that there will be no political cost to this decision may be a mistake. If 2014 turns out to be as dismal as 2012, Republicans may look back on this day and realize that they’ve made an unforced error.

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