December 27, 2012
Mitch McConnell
Sen. Mitch McConnell (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Here’s a fascinating story about how contemporary political parties work, told by the New York Times’s Linda Greenhouse about the NRA and judicial nominations. When Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court and appeared to face an easy confirmation:

The president’s hope was Senator Mitch McConnell’s fear. In order to shore up his caucus, the Senate Republican leader asked a favor of his friends at the National Rifle Association: oppose the Sotomayor nomination and, furthermore, “score” the confirmation vote. An interest group “scores” a vote when it adds the vote on a particular issue to the legislative scorecard it gives each member of Congress at the end of the session…Note that the N.R.A. had never before scored a judicial confirmation vote. Note also that Sonia Sotomayor had no record on the N.R.A.’s issues.

Greenhouse goes on to describe the effectiveness of NRA opposition to Sotomayor and Elaine Kagan — both of whom survived and were confirmed but without very many Republican votes — and to D.C. Circuit Court nominee Caitlin J. Halligan, who has been caught in a filibuster for over two years (for a seat which has been vacant since — believe it or not — 2005). 

Greenhouse reads this story as one about the oversized clout of the gun lobby. I don’t think that’s right, however. It may be true that Republican senators are terrified of the NRA. But if her story is correct, what happened here was that the NRA didn’t actually care very much about these nominees or their views on gun law and the Constitution. Instead, it was acting as an part of the Republican Party. It was doing a favor for the Republican senate leader, either in exchange for some unspecified favor in return, or perhaps just because, as part of the Republican Party network, the NRA assumes that cooperating with Republicans in office is the correct thing to do.

Moreover, there’s also a second part to the story that she doesn’t mention. Those Democrats who normally support the gun lobby do not appear to have been swayed by any of this. That’s certainly not how it normally works when the NRA scores legislation.

It’s not a story about the influence of the gun lobby; it’s an instructive tale of how our political parties function now.