Politics is often a very easy business to cover. The transparency with which politicians try to exploit short-term changes in public opinion can sometimes be painfully obvious. And such is the case over gun control, with Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, both 2016 presidential hopefuls, looking to pass ambitious gun laws in their home states.
What separates the pretenders from the contenders is the ability to anticipate the most consequential issues in 2016, not react hyperactively to the moment's headlines. Gun control is currently the issue du jour, with the White House exerting its pressure to pass ambitious legislation in Congress. But the prospect that successful Democratic presidential candidates will be embracing gun control three years from now is unlikely, even as it’s emerging as an early party litmus test in the wake of the Newtown shootings.
There’s a good case to be made that embracing gun control isn’t nearly as threatening to Democrats as it was a decade ago. Public-opinion polls show widespread support for assault-weapons bans and background checks. My colleague Ron Brownstein has convincingly laid out how the new Democratic coalition is less dependent on the working-class whites more likely to oppose such measures, as Obama’s reelection in 2012 amply demonstrated.
But there’s a difference between gun control not hurting the party and the assumption that it will be a driving force boosting a Democrat’s presidential campaign. The intensity on gun control is still on the side of the opposition, with only 4 percent listing it as their most important issue in the latest Gallup survey. More important, defining one’s candidacy by being the biggest gun restrictionist in the field is a surefire strategy for general-election problems in the Rust Belt swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Even battleground Colorado, filled with the diverse, well-educated voters that gravitate toward Democrats, is a state where “liberal Denver lawyers own handguns, and the Democratic governor takes his son to hunting safety classes,” as The New York Times put it.
Furthermore, there’s an important distinction between gun control and crime control. Since the national murder rate dipped in the mid-1990s, neither has been a major issue in presidential campaigns. But at a time when some of the nation’s biggest cities are still struggling to reduce gun violence, both still could have potency if a candidate could demonstrate that her or she successfully cracked down on persistent urban crime. (Just think about Rahm Emanuel’s image, if he were able to dramatically tame the gang violence in Chicago.)
If O’Malley’s gun-control agenda passes, and violence drops precipitously throughout the state, then he’s got a surefire issue to run on. That’s not likely: Despite passing restrictive gun-control measures as mayor of Baltimore, the city still ranks as one of the most violent in the country. In 2010, Maryland held the eighth-highest violent crime rate in the country.
Cuomo, meanwhile, just passed landmark gun-control legislation in New York, shepherding through the first in the nation since the Connecticut massacre. But with the violent crime rate in New York City at all-time lows, it will be challenging to make the connection between his legislation and reduction in gun crimes. It’s unlikely that simply passing gun-control measures will make either O’Malley or Cuomo a hero in the Democratic electorate’s eyes. Rather, it’s shaping up more like a gun-control catfight between the two governors--who will outdo the other?
If O’Malley gets any national traction, it’s going to be because of his high-profile advocacy for gay marriage, which is now constitutionally guaranteed in Maryland thanks to a referendum question that narrowly passed in November. Along with opposition to the death penalty, gun control may be a secondary way to enhance his liberal bona fides, but that’s about all. For Cuomo, acting on gun control also serves the purpose of making him acceptable to the Democratic base after picking fights with unions and sitting back as Republicans maneuvered their way to maintain control in the state Senate.
The bigger question is whether Cuomo and O’Malley merit the first-tier presidential stature they’ve been receiving lately. I’ve written about how thin the Democratic presidential bench looks for 2016, sans Hillary, with a bunch of secondary politicians looking to punch above their weight class. Desperate to build their national stature and fill a vacuum, they’re looking to grab at national issues to please the base ahead of a presidential run.
If Hillary Rodham Clinton doesn’t run, the slew of dark-horse candidates will look all the more credible as 2016 draws closer. Why not former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who combines a much-needed populist shtick and red-state credibility? Or Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who would fill the much-needed demand for a female contender, and has proven she can win over swing voters in a rural, Republican House district. Could Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa translate his stature as a leading Hispanic voice in the party to a national campaign? Bet on them before O’Malley and Cuomo.
The best politicians are the ones who are ambitious but manage to telegraph their ambitions subtly. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is clearly eyeing 2016 with his new immigration reform proposal, but he’s been talking about the issue since he arrived in the Senate. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has lately become a born-again critic of his party, but at least his bluntness is consistent with his familiar persona. Even President Obama himself waited until the very last moment (February 2007) before jumping into the 2008 presidential race.
O’Malley and Cuomo would be well-advised to look at the presidential careers of those who led the conversation four years before the election: Evan Bayh (2008), Mark Warner (2008), Joe Lieberman (2004), Mario Cuomo (1992), to name a few recent examples. The two Northeastern governors may think gun control is their ticket to become a 2016 contender. Instead, it may be a long-forgotten issue by the time the Iowa caucuses roll around.
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