The dynamic in contemporary American political warfare tends to treat any offenses by those figures that we consider to be on “our side” on many of the great issues of the day as insignificant while treating those of our opponents as earth-shaking crimes. There are conservatives who may overcompensate for this by joining in the liberal demonization of some of the left’s favorite targets, but that kind of disappointing appeal for the respect of the mainstream media ought not prevent us from holding the right accountable for bad behavior.
That’s why Glenn Beck’s appearance at last weekend’s National Rifle Association convention is the sort of thing that cannot go without comment here. In his remarks to the conclave, Beck denounced New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg for financing campaigns against politicians who defend Second Amendment rights. Placing it in the context of Bloomberg’s nanny state style of governing New York, which has led to soda bans as well as a myriad of other measures designed to tell people how to live, Beck put forward a critique of the mayor that rightly painted him as an opponent of individual liberty. But then, as he has often done in the past, Beck went too far.
It wasn’t enough for Beck to depict Bloomberg as a nanny state petty dictator. Instead, he spoke in front of a large backdrop that photo-shopped Bloomberg’s face into what appears to be a famous photo of Adolf Hitler with his arm extended in the infamous Nazi salute. This is more than merely unacceptable political commentary. It is an offense that diminishes the horror of the Holocaust and casts a dark light on both Beck and those who thought his little joke was funny.
Liberal commentators are expressing horror about the celebratory tone of the speeches heard this past weekend at the annual convention of the National Rifle Association. The NRA wasn’t shy about declaring victory in its struggle to thwart the Obama administration’s efforts to pass a raft of new gun laws, even stopping the most moderate Manchin-Toomey expansion of background checks. But what’s really interesting about the commentary about the NRA love-in with opponents of gun laws like Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin isn’t so much the anger about the group’s triumph as it is in the blind confidence on the left that the group’s days of political success are numbered.
Anyone who listened to most of those commenting on the NRA gathering on the news talk shows in recent days knows that among liberals there is a conviction that what happened in the last month, when Democrats joined with the majority of Republicans to stop Manchin-Toomey and every other proposed gun law, including those that would have imposed far greater restrictions on firearm ownership, won’t be repeated in the future. They believe anger from the voters who presumably make up the large majorities that polls say back universal background checks, fueled by emotional appeals from the Newtown victim families and funded by billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, will change the political equation next year.
But while one should never underestimate the power of the sort of “bloody shirt” politics that Newtown has produced as well as the impact of Bloomberg’s cash, the NRA convention should have reminded us that single-issue politics is always a function of the intensity gap that have always decided votes on gun control.
The Wall Street Journal published an editorial responding to claims made by Republican Senator Ted Cruz. The editorial is worth reading for a couple of reasons.
The first is that it offers a useful correction to Senator Cruz’s effort to rewrite history when it comes to his role in the recent gun-control debate. The issue at hand is that Cruz, along with Senators Mike Lee and Rand Paul, wanted to filibuster a bill expanding background checks rather than allow it to come to a vote. The Journal rightly criticized this tactic as self-destructive, since it would allow Democrats to portray Republicans as obstructionists for blocking Senate debate and a vote. Fortunately, the gambit by Cruz & Company failed. The measure was voted on and it went down to defeat. Yet Cruz, in a speech to FreedomWorks, “now wants to take credit for that victory when he opposed the strategy that led to it,” in the words of the Journal.
This is foolish on several fronts, not the least of which is that Cruz’s assertion is so easy to disprove.
The video of a relative of a victim of the Newtown massacre confronting Senator Kelly Ayotte at a New Hampshire town hall meeting has been all over the cable news channels, as the effort to shame those who opposed efforts to expand background checks for gun purchases escalated this week. Other objects of the increasingly aggressive gun-control lobby like Arizona Senator Jeff Flake have also been subjected to attempts by gun violence victims’ relatives to embarrass him for voting against the Manchin-Toomey amendment. But if these supporters of gun-control bills are really interested in getting something passed, they should listen to one of the measure’s co-sponsors.
Senator Pat Toomey made headlines for saying yesterday that he believed Republicans shied away from his legislation in large part because they were disinclined to support anything that President Obama wanted. This is being interpreted as proof that a) Republicans are obstructionists who are the main reason why Congress is dysfunctional and b) the gun bill was stopped out of sheer malice rather than on the merits.
But if you read what he actually said to his hometown paper, the Allentown Call-Chronicle, you’ll find he said something very different from the spin that has been put on his comments by liberals looking to exploit the gun issue:
Toomey asserted that the passionate minority who railed against the measure simply didn’t trust putting more authority over guns in the hands of the Obama administration.
“I would suggest the administration brought this on themselves. I think the president ran his re-election campaign in a divisive way. He divided Americans. He was using resentment of some Americans toward others to generate support for himself. That was very divisive, that has consequences, that lingers,” Toomey said over breakfast in the Senate member’s only dining room.
“I understand why people have some apprehension about this administration. I don’t agree with the conclusion as it applies to my [background checks] amendment, but I understand where the emotion comes from.”
Toomey is right about what happened among Republicans. Advocates of more gun control can cite the huge majorities polls show backing background checks, but the more they rely on demagogic attempts to smear their opponents as being somehow responsible for tragedies like Newtown, the less likely they will be to persuade many Republicans to join their ranks.
It’s been clear for some time that President Obama’s strategy on sequestration cuts–to speak as if they would unleash the seven plagues from the book of Revelations and, when that didn’t occur, attempt to magnify pain on the American people–has been a failure. The latest evidence of this was late last week when President Obama and congressional Democrats jettisoned their position that they would resolve the issue of furloughed air traffic controllers only in the context of a broader agreement to end all the sequestration cuts.
The House, by a margin of 361-to-41, approved a deal to give the secretary of transportation the financial flexibility to shift hundreds of millions of dollars to the air traffic control system–flexibility that Republicans have insisted on and Mr. Obama originally refused. (The House vote came after the Senate acted.)
Originally, the president and Democrats said they would only replace the sequester cuts with tax increases. They are now, slowly and against their will, embracing the GOP approach of applying cuts in a reasonable and prioritized way. Read More
Riding a wave of media-driven indignation and fueled by polls that showed broad popular support for background checks, gun control advocates are claiming they won’t wait until after the next election to try again to pass another version of the Manchin-Toomey amendment. It’s an open question as to whether their arguments will resonate with the red state Democrats who crossed the aisle to vote with the majority of Republicans against any gun bill, or whether they can persuade some in the GOP caucus to flip. But exploiting the Boston Marathon bombing the same way they’ve relentlessly waved the bloody shirt of the Newtown massacre won’t do the trick.
Guns did play a role in the Tsarnaev brothers’ crimes. And since Tamerlan Tsarnaev had already been placed in the database of the FBI, theoretically a background check on a prospective weapons purchase by him might have triggered an intervention by law enforcement authorities before the tragedy occurred. That’s what motivated Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York to take to the floor of the House on Friday to argue that Boston gives us another reason to pass a background checks law with the inflammatory style we’ve come to expect from the anti-gun crowd:
The pro-gun lobby insists that the next terrorist should still be able to buy all the assault weapons they want and all the 100-round magazines they need, no problem, no background check necessary. And the next terrorist and the next Tamerlan thinks they’re absolutely right.
The problem with Representative Maloney’s argument isn’t just that it’s despicable of her to accuse groups like the National Rifle Association of supporting terror (though that’s a line that probably went down well with most of her Upper East Side constituency), it’s that the facts of the case flatly contradict the pro-gun control narrative. As I wrote last week, the guns the Tsarnaevs used to kill one police officer and wound another did not have legal permits. Neither did their pressure cooker bombs.
One crime was committed by a person motivated by no cause or political interest and driven only by personal demons. Another crime was committed by two people whose actions were clearly driven by their religious and political beliefs. Under these circumstances, which of these terrible tragedies do you think would be considered an incident that could only be properly understood as something that ought to spur the nation to specific political actions?
If you answered the latter, you clearly know nothing about our political culture.
The former is, of course, the Newtown massacre in which a crazed, lone gunman murdered 20 1st-graders and six teachers at a Connecticut elementary school. The latter is the Boston Marathon bombing that took the lives of three spectators and wounded nearly 200, to which the toll of one police officer murdered and another wounded during the manhunt for the terrorists must be added. Though the first was a random act of personal madness and the second was just the latest in a long string of terrorist acts motivated by Islamist hatred for the West and America, there has never been any doubt about which of the two our chattering classes would consider as having undeniable political consequences and which would be treated as an unknowable crime about which intelligent persons ought not to think too deeply.
The New York Times reports that gun-control advocates are not dissuaded by their recent failure to get first a gun ban and then a background checks bill passed. They are pressing on with attempts to further regulate gun ownership. As I noted and as the Washington Post explained, Americans basically came to see the Toomey-Manchin bill as representative of the fight to restrict gun ownership, and the attempts by the government to impose such restrictions unnerved them. This bothers supporters of gun control for cultural reasons, and I think it’s worth explaining where gun-rights supporters are coming from.
In February, Timothy Noah wrote a perceptive column about how liberals were no longer always talking about liberal policies in “non-liberal language.” But gun control was an exception. “Hunters are understood to be part of an authentic American majority in a way liberals who don’t shoot guns are not,” Noah wrote. “But this ingrained assumption is no longer true. Busily genuflecting before hunters, liberals have somehow failed to realize that they are a new silent majority.”
Noah’s column was headlined “How Liberals Became ‘Real Americans’,” and the example of gun ownership as the outlier–gun owners are the real “real Americans” no matter how many, or how few, of them there actually are–is instructive. As anyone who has been told by gun control supporters that tyranny is not on the agenda and therefore the Founders’ concern for the right to bear arms is just a bit dated can attest, concern about the slippery slope argument on guns is downright puzzling to the left. But it’s actually much easier to understand than it seems.
One of the often-quoted pieces of advice about modern politics is: first you win the argument, then you win the vote. On gun control, President Obama thought he did the former, and assumed he’d then achieve the latter. In reality, he did neither.
Yesterday, I criticized the way Obama conducted the argument over gun control, as well as the excuses some of his supporters made for why his favored gun control bill failed: he’s too nice to threaten, too proud to beg, his government too poor to bribe (a great, if unrelated, argument in favor of austerity, perhaps). And I did so on the grounds that Obama has been overstating, or overestimating, the public support for gun control. Today, the Washington Post reports on its new poll on gun control. Was the country as furious at the failure of the gun bill as the president was? According to the Post:
Ever since the failure of the gun-control bill, President Obama’s supporters have been wondering how it is that the president could ask for something and not get it. Obama himself seemed fairly surprised by this, if his bizarre and uncomfortable statement after the vote was any indication. He lashed out at the senators who opposed the bill, but those senators were motivated by electoral concerns, which means they were nervous to cross the voters they are supposed to represent, which means the president was really lashing out at the public.
And of course the president fully understood the position of those lawmakers he was demonizing as accomplices to child endangerment. After all, the horrible tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut was not the first mass shooting of his presidency; there was one in his first term as well, but the president chose not to muster and release his righteous indignation when he still had to worry about his own re-election. And now he looked at dozens of lawmakers who acted exactly as he did and called them cowards. But today’s New York Times story on the failure of the gun bill has managed to find easily the most ludicrous explanation yet:
The latest tidbit from the investigation of the Boston Marathon bombing should interest those Americans who have been pondering whether proposed gun control laws would actually deter or stop criminals from obtaining weapons. The Associated Press informs us that the Tsarnaev brothers did not have legal permits for the guns they used in their shootouts with police, when they killed one and wounded another officer:
Cambridge Police Commissioner Robert Haas tells The Associated Press in an interview Sunday that neither Tamerlan Tsarnaev nor his brother Dzhokhar had permission to carry firearms. He says it’s unclear whether either ever applied and the applications aren’t considered public records. But he says the 19-year-old Dzhokhar would have been denied a permit because of his age. Only people 21 or older are allowed gun licenses in Massachusetts.
No doubt we’ll learn more about how the Tsarnaevs got their guns as well as their bomb-making materials in the future as the investigation proceeds, but this makes perfect sense. People who are accumulating an arsenal of weapons to carry out a crime—whether they are habitual criminals and/or gang members or potential terrorists–aren’t limited to licensed gun dealers or even private sellers at gun shows, which would have only been required to perform background checks on purchasers if the Toomey-Manchin bill had passed. It also goes without saying that the pressure cookers and the ball bearings used as shrapnel that the brothers used in their bombs were also not registered with the authorities.
What’s the difference between righteous and self-righteous? Last Wednesday, President Obama stood alongside victims of gun violence and spoke about the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey bill, which would have expanded background checks for gun buyers. Obama’s insistence that America has seen “too many tragedies” of late is righteous (“characterized by uprightness or morality,” according to dictionary.com). But he went on to describe a moral split that posited on his side “those who care deeply about preventing more and more gun violence” and on the other, “those who blocked these common-sense steps to help keep our kids safe.” That, and his declaring opponents “shameful,” is self-righteous (“having or showing an exaggerated awareness of one’s own virtuousness or rights”).
There was never an open policy debate after the Sandy Hook shooting. There was only an inarticulate pledge to act. Little wonder nothing will be accomplished. And after Obama’s speech, there would still be no debate. Liberals echoed his self-righteousness through social-media memes. Because nothing says, “I sincerely care” like an infinitely clicked-on Photoshop collage of young victims captioned by a partisan message.
As I noted earlier, yesterday’s Senate votes on the Manchin-Toomey amendment as well as other provisions ended the chances that any gun control legislation will pass Congress this year. While Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and California Senator Dianne Feinstein have vowed to keep pushing for assault weapon bans and other proposals that have zero chance of passage, from this point forward the debate will be conducted solely with an eye toward public opinion and next year’s midterm election, not any specific legislation. That means that while some may dismiss yesterday’s bitter post-vote comments by President Obama and other gun control advocates as mere posturing, they are actually quite significant.
Obama, former Representative Gabrielle Giffords and other supporters of various new restrictions were not shy about lambasting the National Rifle Association during the last four months. The Newtown massacre gave the White House an excuse to resurrect gun control as a national issue, yet he was sufficiently interested in attracting the votes of wavering members of Congress that he tended to restrict his demagoguery to the stock villains of the National Rifle Association leadership. But yesterday’s defeat changed all that. The rejection of Manchin-Toomey has set off a wave of almost hysterical denunciations of gun rights advocates from Obama, Giffords and media figures like MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski today that has lowered the discourse on the issue to a level that has rarely been seen before. After spending much of the last few years accusing right-wing Tea Party members of incivility that was at the heart of the dysfunction of our political system, liberals have now raised the stakes in this game to a point where dialogue is now impossible.
In a Rose Garden statement in the aftermath of his failure to persuade the Senate to move on any of his gun control proposals, the president raged, Lear-like, against his opponents. It was a rather unpleasant mix–one part petulance and two parts anger.
In the course of his outburst, the president said this:
I’ve heard folks say that having the families of victims lobby for this legislation was somehow misplaced. “A prop,” somebody called them. “Emotional blackmail,” some outlet said. Are they serious? Do we really think that thousands of families whose lives have been shattered by gun violence don’t have a right to weigh in on this issue? Do we think their emotions, their loss is not relevant to this debate? So all in all, this was a pretty shameful day for Washington.
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.
It may be a little early to write it off completely, but today’s Politico feature on the gun legislation being considered by the Senate leaves readers with the distinct impression that the effort is doomed. With so many Republicans, including a majority of those who voted for cloture that allowed the bill to be considered, lining up to oppose the bipartisan compromise on background checks proposed by Senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, its chances of passage are not good. Moreover, even if it somehow squeaks by in the Senate, it now appears that there is no sign that the GOP majority in the House of Representatives is inclined to approve anything, even a bill as moderate as Manchin-Toomey, that falls under the rubric of gun control.
If so, it won’t be long before the postmortems on the push for gun legislation begin in full force and, as the Politico piece indicated, it will be the National Rifle Association and its allies that will be considered the main culprits. The NRA will be happy to take full credit from the mainstream media for Manchin-Toomey’s failure since it reinforces their image as an all-powerful lobby that can intimidate both conservative Republicans and moderate red-state Democrats to back off even the most reasonable proposals. But the reason for their success in rallying opposition to the bill since the Newtown massacre gave a new impetus to this cause may not stem entirely from the group’s ability to convince legislators that opposing their dictates is a ticket to political oblivion. Liberals may believe they can make political hay from what they will brand as Republican obstructionism in next year’s midterm elections. But they should realize that it is their decision to overreach in their calls for weapon bans that has given the NRA all the ammunition it needed to convince many conservatives that the goal of this campaign truly is to undermine the Second Amendment rights that the president claims to have designs on.
President Obama played his strongest card this weekend in the ongoing struggle over gun control legislation when he had one of the parents of the victims of the Newtown massacre deliver his weekly radio address. Francine Wheeler, the mother of one of the 1st-graders murdered at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in December delivered an impassioned plea for Americans to join in support of what she and the White House termed the president’s “common sense” proposals. The speech was both eloquent and deeply moving and, like the effects of some of the lobbying visits to members of the House and the Senate by the Newtown parents, obviously effective.
Suffice it to say that so long as the debate about guns is restricted to one between Ms. Wheeler and, say, Wayne LaPierre, the head of the National Rifle Association, gun rights advocates haven’t got much of a chance. There is no arguing with grief, especially when it is attached to rather amorphous rhetoric about the issue that simply implores Congress to “do something” about guns.
This is a fact that hasn’t escaped the attention of those who are seeking to oppose the president or even the bipartisan compromise proposal put forward by pro-gun senators Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, but there is no use complaining about it. The Newtown parents have a right to speak out on this issue and you can’t blame the media for giving them outsized coverage. But those who believe they can count on this factor cowing the NRA or even more moderate opponents of infringements on the Second Amendment into submission should not overestimate the impact that the pure emotion generated by the relatives of the victims will have in the long run. Such passion is powerful but it is not a substitute for reason. Nor can it be sustained indefinitely. That is why people like Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who is puffed in a column this weekend by the New York Times‘s Maureen Dowd saying his goal is to “disenfranchise the N.R.A.,” are not going to succeed.
The Washington Post has an interesting background piece detailing the process by which a hard-core conservative Republican like Pennsylvania’s Senator Pat Toomey became a co-sponsor of a gun legislation compromise. According to the Post, the keys to Toomey’s decision were the relationship he developed with West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and the input of a new lobbying group backed by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Toomey appears to have done an intense study of the issues surrounding the push for gun control after the Newtown massacre with the intent of finding a legislative idea that could be seen as a response to the incident that would also protect the rights of gun owners and the Second Amendment. The result was the proposed amendment to the gun bill being proposed by Democrats that will expand background checks for purchases while also limiting the ability of the government to interfere in legitimate exchanges and sales, as well as providing other provisions that would benefit gun owners.
But that hasn’t protected Toomey from a storm of abuse from pro-gun groups as well as some Republicans who have come to see the tussle over guns as one more zero-sum game between the two parties in which the only possible outcome is that one side wins and the other loses. Seen from that perspective, any compromise on guns, no matter how anodyne in nature or insignificant in terms of its impact on Second Amendment rights, must be resisted not just because it might be the first step on a slippery slope toward abolition of gun rights but because it could be considered a victory for President Obama.
I sympathize with those who see the liberal exploitation of Newtown as unscrupulous and agree with their conclusion that none of the possible legislative options on guns—up to and including the ones that Toomey opposes, which seek to ban certain types of rifles or ammunition magazines—will do much to prevent another such atrocity. But the willingness of some partisans to treat even ideas about background checks that polls show have the support of approximately nine of out of 10 Americans as something that must be rejected simply because the president and his liberal backers want it is neither good policy nor good politics.
Yesterday, Larry Pratt, the head of Gun Owners of America, told CNN that his group would be looking to find a Republican to challenge Senator Pat Toomey in 2016. The group, which is to the right of the National Rifle Association, spoke for some on the right who are angry about Toomey’s decision to join with Democrat Joe Manchin to create a compromise on background checks for gun purchases that would close the gun show loophole while exempting sales or exchanges between family members. The proposed amendment to the legislation that Senate Democrats have presented for debate falls far short of the gun control ideas presented by the administration. But it still goes too far for absolutists who are so afraid of a slippery slope toward abrogation of Second Amendment rights that they are prepared to oppose any bill that so much as mentions guns, even if it doesn’t limit the right to own for those who are neither criminals nor mentally ill.
Toomey is taking plenty of flak for crafting the compromise. The grousing on the far right will only be fed by a Politico story that paints his decision to work with Manchin to moderate the bill up before the Senate as a prudent political decision based on a need to shift a bit to the center for his 2016 re-election race. But any assumption that Toomey’s shift on background checks will endanger his hold on his party’s nomination three years from now is ridiculous. The notion that support for background checks will be enough to fuel a primary challenge to Toomey ignores the fact that it is virtually impossible to get to Toomey’s right on fiscal or social issues as well as his history as the standard-bearer of conservatives against a genuine RINO, the late Arlen Specter.
Rather than an indication that Republicans ought to fear any deviation from the line set by the NRA and its allies, the knee-jerk reaction to Toomey’s move on background checks only reinforces the impression that the gun lobbies really are hopelessly out of touch not only with the general public but with Republicans. As with much of the pro-gun movement’s moves since the Newtown massacre, the attacks on Toomey show a tone deafness that will encourage liberals who think the NRA and company are on the decline.
Has common sense prevailed on gun legislation in Washington? That’s one way to look at the compromise proposal on background checks on gun purchases that is being announced today by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey. The pair, a moderate conservative Democrat and a hard-line fiscal and social conservative Republican, bridge the gap between the two parties and have probably arrived at the only gun measure that has a prayer of passage. Whatever else it will achieve, the plan will almost certainly end any hope of a filibuster of gun legislation in the Senate that had been threatened by Marco Rubio and a dozen other members of the GOP.
The announcement will leave us with three questions.
The first is whether Manchin and Toomey have come up with an amendment to the gun bill that is reasonable. The second is whether it will pass the House of Representatives. But the third, and more interesting, point is whether this is the end or the beginning of a long campaign of efforts by gun control advocates to restrict Second Amendment rights. It is on the answer to that question that reaction from conservatives will hinge. If, rather than seeing this an effort to conclude a divisive debate with something most people can live with, the House Republican caucus believes the expansion of background checks is the thin edge of the wedge in a long-term liberal plan to ban guns, Manchin and Toomey will have achieved nothing.