Red-state Democrats: Profiles in cowardice

     

    If the gun reform movement sparked by Newtown ultimately comes to naught, if the denizens of Capitol Hill ultimately do nothing, rest assured that the top prize for spinelessness will be awarded to as many as eight quaking Senate Democrats.

    We all know that the Republicans prefer to do nothing to curb gun violence; their instransigence is to be expected. But they have no political incentive to act – not even to support expanded background checks – when the red-state Democrats are just as reluctant. Gun reform, no matter how modest, doesn’t stand a chance unless those red-staters step up. And yet, despite landslide public support for expanded background checks of private gun purchasers, these quaking Democrats are afraid to endorse even that.

    It’s noteworthy that Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $12-million ad campaign for gun reform, which debuts today, targets not just the most theoretically persuadable Senate Republicans, but also is destined for TV screens in red states represented by Democrats. The ads, which feature a guy with a shotgun stating the obvious (“I support comprehensive background checks so criminals and the dangerously mentally ill can’t buy guns” and “Background checks have nothing to do with taking guns away from anyone”), are designed to light a fire under red-state Democrats like Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.

    The Bloomberg ads are slated to run in those five states. Various national polls show that 91 percent of Americans, 87 percent of Republicans and 85 percent of NRA households, support a law that would mandate background checks on gun show buyers. And yet few red-state Democrats have uttered a peep in support.

    Granted, some of those Democrats – Pryor, Hagan, Landrieu, Baucus, and Begich – face tough re-election fights in 2014. And, granted, Democrats have to defend 21 of 35 Senate seats up for grabs in 2014, which means that retaining those red states is crucial to the party’s continued control of the chamber. So perhaps it’s understandable that those incumbents would be reluctant to say or do anything that might conceivably bestir the voters in anti-Obama states. And their Senate leader, Harry Reid, who tried and failed to secure an NRA endorsement for his own Nevada re-election in 2010, has done nothing to nudge those incumbents toward any aspect of gun reform. (He signaled his passivity back in January, when he said of gun reform, “I’m not going to be going through as bunch of these gyrations just to say we’ve done something.”)

    On the other hand, it doesn’t exactly require a profile in courage for a red-state Democrat to endorse expanded background checks, to tell one’s constituents that screening for bad guys is not inconsistent with the sainted constitutional guarantee of a well-regulated militia. Alas, the abject fear of the NRA apparently remains pervasive, even on a commonsensical issue where the NRA hierarchy is out of step with the NRA rank and file. The current cowardice of that Democratic quintet is pitiful.

    Heitkamp is even worse. Newly elected to her seat, she doesn’t have to face the voters again until 2018 – yet she’s in the bunker on background checks, behaving as if expanded screening was a plot to pry guns from cold dead hands. Heitkamp had barely been sworn in when she opined that the White House’s reform proposals were “way in the extreme of what I think is necessary.” Yesterday, a spokesman said she’s “still reviewing proposals on the table.”

    There’s a glint of daylight on several Democratic fronts. Donnelly, newly elected in Indiana, says he might be “open” to expanded background checks. Hagan, the North Carolinian, says she might be willing to “start a conversation.” Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Tim Johnson of South Dakota have hinted that maybe they’d vote for expanded background checks (Johnson announced his retirement today, so presumably he’s now free to act in the public interest). Big whoop. If reform is going to stand a chance this spring (forget a new assault weapons ban, that’s DOA already), if the Senate has any hopes of breaking a threatened Republican filibuster, all the red-state Democrats will need to grow spines – on an issue that doesn’t require any bravery.

    Because if these Democrats can’t even get it together to support a modest gun reform endorsed by 91 percent of the American people, what hope do we have that Newtown will ever be properly avenged?

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    It’s a true shame that Anthony Lewis didn’t live and work long enough to witness the U.S. Supreme Court’s deliberations on gay marriage, because this civil rights revolution, and its attendant legal complexities, would have been right in his wheelhouse.

    You should know about Lewis, in case you don’t. He died yesterday at 85, nearly 12 years into his retirement. From 1969 to 2001, he wrote a New York Times column that translated arcane legal issues into elegant everyday prose. Lewis’ special talent, as a Times editor wrote this morning, was “to make major cases understandable and accessible to ordinary readers.” I drew inspiration from that goal starting way back in college journalism, when my constitutional law professor urged me to read Lewis on a regular basis, so as to make my own writing more conversational.

    I read Lewis for decades, right to the end. In his final column, in December ’01, he hailed America as “a country of unbounded optimism, a country that struggles with itself and conquers corrupting habit. In my lifetime we have carried out two revolutions, unfinished but extraordinary: the ending of racial discrimination, and the move toward equality for women….In the end I believe that faith in reason will prevail. But it will not happen automatically. Freedom under law is hard work.”

    The third revolution is under way – regrettably without Lewis – and the hard work continues.

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

     

     

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