Watching President Obama’s fury after Congress failed to pass any gun-control legislation was a sign of his political helplessness. Despite aggressively pushing for expanded background checks, despite enlisting the victims of recent gun violence to lobby their representatives, despite getting one of the more conservative senators to support a watered-down background-check measure, he fell five votes short of getting anything passed in the Senate, including losing four members from his own party.
If this doesn’t demonstrate the limitations of the president’s political muscle and the influence of his newly minted Organizing for Action lobbying group, I don’t know what does. Yet, despite the embarrassing setback, Obama nonetheless argued that he still held the upper hand, politically: “If this Congress refuses to listen to the American people and pass commonsense gun legislation, then the real impact is going to have to come from the voters.” That couldn’t misread the political environment heading into 2014 anymore. That’s the audacity of mope.
Put simply, the 2014 Senate elections will be fought predominantly on the very turf that is most inhospitable to gun control–Southern and Mountain West conservative states. It’s no coincidence that three of the four Democrats who opposed the Toomey-Manchin bill are facing difficult reelections in 2014 and presumably are attuned to the sentiments of their constituents. Blame the National Rifle Association for the bill’s failure, but the lobby is feeding into already deeply held opposition to gun regulations and a broader sense of anxiety about the president’s and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s intentions–particularly given the president’s past publicized remark about “bitter” rural voters who “cling to their guns and religion.” It doesn’t take much for the gun-rights crowd, significant in these states, to jump to inaccurate conclusions given that history.
And how do the White House or allied groups plan on punishing gun-control opponents? The notion of challenging the Second Amendment Democrats is as fanciful as it is self-defeating. Democratic primary voters in the deep South have significantly different views on gun rights than their coastal counterparts. Even if they support expanded background checks, the chance of landing a candidate running a one-issue campaign against brand-name Democrats like Mark Pryor and Mark Begich defies common sense. Three years ago in Arkansas, liberals poured their money and manpower in to defeat former Sen. Blanche Lincoln in a primary with the state’s lieutenant governor. Even though Lincoln was unpopular in the state–later losing reelection to Republican Sen. John Boozman by 21 points–she fended off the challenge.
Surely the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has its hands full with the competing interests of its incumbents, doesn’t want to see the type of internal conflict that’s riven their Republican counterparts over the last four years. They’ve encouraged their vulnerable Southern members up for reelection to cultivate independent brands, to show they don’t follow the president blindly. That’s what Pryor, Begich, and Sen. Max Baucus of Montana did in opposing the background-check compromise. Obama didn’t say it outright, but he came awfully close to suggesting he won’t be supporting members of his own party who deserted him at a key moment of his presidency.
The broader political point is whether, in a presidential election year, Republicans’ widespread opposition to gun control will come back to haunt them–especially given polls showing support for gun regulations moved up in the wake of the recent shootings and with demographic groups like Hispanics and young voters more supportive of gun control growing in numbers. It’s certainly possible that the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee will embrace gun control in his or her campaign, unlike the last three nominees who avoided it entirely, including Obama himself–twice. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, future presidential possibilities, successfully made gun control the centerpiece of their most recent legislative agendas.
But the failure of Democrats to pass gun legislation (in a Democratic-controlled Senate) for a future presidential nominee to use against Republicans makes the issue a lot less potent. One can imagine Hillary Rodham Clinton trying to shame, say, Marco Rubio for opposing a gun law that could be later claimed to have reduced crime. But without any law passed, it’s hard to imagine the gun issue being nearly as resonant as it is today in the wake of the horrific killings in Connecticut. And with Democrats being a significant obstacle to its passage, it muddles the message even more. Even Obama, in Wednesday's address, felt compelled to say that “Democrats had that fear, too” of the NRA and “caved to the pressure.”
Despite the reflexive criticism of the NRA, the real complication for gun-control backers is the voters themselves at least those in certain states. The Senate gives disproportionate influence to smaller, more-rural states, and Republicans and Democrats alike from those states opposed legislation that was broadly popular nationwide. Unlike Bill Clinton, a Southern Democrat familiar with the gun culture who passed the Brady Bill and an assault-weapons ban, Obama didn’t have any political standing to persuade the moderates in his own party that it wouldn’t cost them at the ballot box. Simply using the bully pulpit and making emotional appeals isn’t enough–it takes legislative know-how and a good working relationship with Congress, two areas this White House has struggled with since its difficulties passing a health care law and persuading the public of its merits.
Those traits don’t bode well for the prospects for Obama’s next big agenda item, immigration reform, even though the politics of the issue are much different and more favorable, on paper, for proponents. The president’s legacy hangs in the balance in these next months, and he will need to recover politically without lingering on punishing his gun-control opponents. He’ll need wavering Republicans and Democrats again in the coming weeks.