The Manchin-Toomey gun bill failed. That’s not the end of the world.

April 22, 2013

"A step forward, but a small step.”

That was the verdict of Phil Cook, a leading criminologist at Duke University, on Manchin-Toomey. It's worth remembering today.


(Mel Evans / The Associated Press)

Universal background checks for gun purchases are a good, and overdue, idea. So too with cracking down on straw purchasers and traffickers. But the rending of (mostly Democratic) garments after the failure of the gun-control bills is out of proportion to anything the legislation actually would've done.

Take ex-White House chief of staff Bill Daley's op-ed. He says that North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp "betrayed him on gun control." He offers "some advice for my [fundraising] friends in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles: Just say no to the Democrats who said no on background checks." He calls Sens. Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin "statesmen" because they voted for the bill.

This is the same Bill Daley who back in 2009 wrote that the success of the Democratic Party relied on making "inroads in geographies and constituencies that had trended Republican since the 1960s" and required Democrats "to steer a more moderate course on the key issues of the day, from health care to the economy to the environment to Afghanistan."

For the record, there's not a shadow of a doubt that the Affordable Care Act will save more lives than background checks. And that was a much tougher vote for vulnerable Democrats to cast -- in part because party elders like Daley were criticizing it.

But where it was obvious to Daley in 2009 that health reform and cap-and-trade should have been sacrificed to protect red-state Democrats, it's just as obvious to him in 2013 that red-state Democrats who defected on gun control have committed a grave sin against their party. The symbolism of Manchin-Toomey has trumped the substance of the Affordable Care Act and cap-and-trade.

Maureen Dowd, meanwhile, believes Heitkamp's vote is the president's fault. "Even House Republicans who had no intention of voting for the gun bill marveled privately that the president could not muster 60 votes in a Senate that his party controls," she confides.

It is a rare day indeed when House Republicans privately marvel over the Obama administration's failure to attract support they refuse to offer. By my count, it has only happened on 1,553 days since Jan. 20, 2009.

Dowd believes that "The White House should have created a war room full of charts with the names of pols they had to capture, like they had in 'The American President.' Soaring speeches have their place, but this was about blocking and tackling.”

She's talking, for the record, about the 1995 Aaron Sorkin movie of the same name. And, for the record, the blocking and tackling by the American president failed, and the happy ending -- spoiler alert, but the movie is 18 years old -- is the president giving the sort of a soaring speech required, in the pleasant world of political fiction, to enact large-scale change. And odds are that his stirring promise to go door-to-door and take everybody's handguns ended up failing, too.

Gun control is an unusually emotional issue. And the failure of legislation with such broad public support is a frustrating reminder that the Senate is designed to foil democracy. But the laws under consideration weren't "gun control." They would not have controlled the nation's flow of guns, nor dramatically changed the rate of violent crime. Manchin-Toomey was "a step forward, but a small step," and it would likely have become even smaller in the House.

You could, in fact, make an argument that gun control was an ideal bill for vulnerable Democrats to defect on. "Red state Democrats were being asked to assume a large political risk for a small and quite likely nonexistent policy gain," writes Jonathan Chait. "If I were one of them, I’d have voted no, too."

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Sarah Kliff · April 22, 2013