Did Senate Democratic leadership really want gun control?

Did Senate Democratic leadership really want gun control?
Dick Durbin
The whip who didn’t whip

Earlier this week, the grand compromise gun control bill, Manchin-Toomey, was voted down. While many will point the finger of blame at Republicans, here’s the real culprit: Harry Reid, Senate majority leader, and Dick Durbin, Senate majority whip. Despite the impassioned rhetoric on this issue, Sen. Durbin didn’t bother to “whip” the bill, meaning he wasn’t offering inducements (or threats) to enforce party discipline in a unanimous party-line vote.

The result: a 54-46 vote (the bill failed by not achieving a filibuster-proof majority). Five Democrats voted against the bill—Sens. Baucus, Begich, Heitkamp, Pryor and Reid (the latter supposedly for procedural reasons). Four Republicans voted for it—Sens. Collins, Kirk, McCain and Toomey.  If Sen. Durbin had been an effective whip on this issue, it might have passed, with only one more Republican vote needed.

A further embarrassment came when an assault weapons ban was voted on. There, the Democratic majority in the Senate really fractured. The ultimate smack down of the assault weapons ban was 40/60. (For a good thread on the votes that day, plus reaction, see this Hot Air post.)

This was an odd outcome, to say the least, for the majority party in the Senate when their party platform specifically calls for a ban on assault weapons (emphasis mine):

We believe in an honest, open national conversation about firearms. We can focus on effective enforcement of existing laws, especially strengthening our background check system, and we can work together to enact commonsense improvements—like reinstating the assault weapons ban and closing the gun show loophole—so that guns do not fall into the hands of those irresponsible, law-breaking few.

By contrast, the Republican platform specifically opposes restrictions on Second Amendment rights and calls gun ownership “responsible citizenship.”

So, the natural place for gun control advocates to look for votes is the Democratic caucus. But I’m not convinced the Democratic leadership really wanted gun control in any form to pass. Gun control is a tricky issue for Democratic legislators from hunting states, from states with strong gun-rights populations.  (Such as Nevada, where Harry Reid had a B rating from the NRA and a mixed record on gun control.) For them, the best possible outcome is the one they got—with a gun control bill voted down, the majority of Republicans on the “no” side of the bill.  They then get to use the issue against their adversaries without having to actually effectively move it forward.

Uh, here’s a tip for gun control advocates: focus your attention and persuasion on Democrats to get action. Gun control is in the Democratic platform; opposition to it is in the Republican one.

Years ago, I came to a conclusion about public policy advocacy. Let’s call it Libby’s Law. It goes like this:

In order to effectively move a policy forward, you must love the policy (and its potential impact on people) more than you hate its opponents.

I came to this conclusion when working on education reform. On our side of the ideological divide, there are lots of folks upset with the teachers unions (with good reason, I would add). But that ire isn’t enough to keep good policy moving forward, especially when you’re trying to work around the edges as well as push big reforms forward. You quickly lose votes from those who get pushback, or from those who have other priority issues on their agenda.

Outrage might be a favorite emotion (it is mine, sometimes), but it doesn’t translate into effective long-term strategies to push policy through. It’s hard to sustain.

But outrage does serve a great public relations purpose—it gins up opposition, for example, to your adversaries.

We saw this big-time in the wake of the horrific shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. The NRA became the enemy, and anyone not on board with gun control was the Spawn of Satan (I exaggerate…but only a little.) Since many Republicans are gun-rights supporters, that meant they were in the rhetorical cross hairs.

I saw folks on Facebook weighing in to say they were contacting this or that congressman or senator. When the legislator was a Republican, my thought was: Why waste your time on him? Go after your Democratic legislators!

Call me crazy, but I suspect the Democratic leadership knows all this. And when Manchin-Toomey was gaining steam, there was probably a lot of nervous twitching going on in the Senate Majority Leader’s and Whip’s offices. Here was a bill co-sponsored by a Democrat from a gun rights state (West  Virginia’s Manchin) working with a Tea Party Solid Blue Republican (Pennsylvania’s Toomey). This was a recipe for gun control success!

But it didn’t happen. My guess is the Senate Democratic leadership breathed a sigh of relief after it was over.

And that’s because I don’t believe for one second that Sens. Harry Reid and Dick Durbin love gun control more than they dislike Republicans.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.


Libby Sternberg

Libby Sternberg

Libby Sternberg is an Edgar-nominated novelist whose works include humorous women’s fiction, young adult fiction, and historical fiction. Her political writings have appeared at Hot Air, the Weekly Standard, Insight, the Wall Street Journal, and Christian Science Monitor.

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