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.