As presidential campaign ends, hopes dashed for issues pushers

It’s over.

And in Washington, this place of perpetual nudging and buttonholing and prodding, the end comes hard. Hard because there is another campaign — one fraught with disappointment and measured in the longest of odds — that happens beneath The Campaign. This second campaign is waged to get the attention of the candidates, to get them talking about your issue, your cause, your obsession.

And when the polls open on Election Day, the last hopes of so many nudgers, buttonholers and prodders will finally, irreversibly, be dashed. Ask the climate-change folks, the comprehensive immigration reform crowd, the Supreme Court appointment junkies, the drug-war fixaters, the gun-control crusaders.

In other cycles, some of them have been big players. Al Gore took up gun control during his 2000 presidential campaign and received the support of Sarah Brady, the advocate and wife of James Brady, the White House press secretary who was shot and severely injured in a 1981 attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. And Barack Obama promised during his 2008 campaign that he would deliver major immigration reform in his first year in office.

This time around, these nudgers tried, oh, yes, they tried. But they couldn’t get the presidential nominees from either major party to embrace their passions as election-season centerpieces — not in a cycle in which the economy so thoroughly dominated.

Explore the 2012 electoral map and view historical results and demographics

So Election Day is a day for them to lament, to rage, to self-criticize, just as it is a day for them to reassess, to regroup, to recommit.

“If” is the word Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, reaches for.

“If” only Gross and his colleagues had spent less time making their argument “behind closed doors with elected officials.”

“If” only they’d turned outward more.

“If” only they’d “started sooner.”

“If” only they’d been less reactive and more proactive.

If.

Gross, whose organization is a leading advocate for gun control, is engaged in what he calls a “fundamental shift” drawn from the lessons of this presidential campaign and applied in its latter stages. Next time, they’ll be savvier with communications, they’ll look to stimulate a national conversation by capitalizing on polls that he says show an overwhelming majority of Americans want measures such as criminal background checks for gun buyers. Then, he reasons, the campaigns will have to listen.

And even now, he may have reasons to be optimistic. On the second-to-last day of campaign, President Obama held a rally in Aurora, Colo., where 12 people were killed in a movie-theater massacre in July. And although the president didn’t make a stirring call for gun control, the symbolism of the swing-state visit was unmistakable.

Said Gross: “Nobody wants to live in a country where 32 people are gunned down every day. Those of us who work on this issue need to do a better job on — and are now intensely focused on — really giving voice to the overwhelming majority of Americans who want to have this conversation.”

When the campaign began — an eon or two ago, or so it seems — the moods of the prodding set were different. They are, by nature, believers in the power of persuasion. It was the equivalent of baseball spring training, when “hope springs eternal.” Richard Land, a conservative who is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, thought this just might be the moment for comprehensive immigration reform. It was politically complicated, but his gut told him the American people wanted something big: “I’m talking about comprehensive legislation,” Land says. “I’m not talking about the low-hanging fruit of [addressing the legal status of] the children of those who came here illegally.”

The plan was simple, straightforward, old-fashioned and time-tested: one-on-one persuasion. Land is a member of a group called the Evangelical Table, a collection of religious leaders who have a variety of political leanings but who are united in a desire for changes to immigration policy. “Those who had better contacts with Republicans reached out to Republicans. Those who had better contacts with Democrats reached out to Democrats,” Land says. “Neither one of us got very far.”

Instead of seeking far-reaching reform, the presidential candidates nibbled at the edges of the immigration debate. The reticence puzzles Land in a sense, and in a sense it doesn’t. “I’m surprised that both candidates have kind of shied away from it,” he says. “The people who want it fixed are the independents that both are after.”

Yet, ultimately, the “campaign has been pretty predictable,” Land says. “When the economy is as bad as it is,” he says, that single issue tends to crowd out everything else.

Land speaks calmly. Matter-of-factly. Slowly. He is a patient man. And politicians listen to him about other things. He’ll have his day.

Brad Johnson, though, is racing to be heard. He seethes.

Johnson helped start a campaign in September, shortly before the first presidential debate, called Climate Silence, premised on the notion that the major-party presidential candidates weren’t talking about his issue: climate change.

He and others in the group set about trying to press their message about climate change with environmental groups, journalists and opinion-makers in hopes that the candidates would take notice. They attracted thousands of signatures for petitions and spurred several groups to hold demonstrations, but the candidates didn’t bite. Nor did the media, or at least not to the extent he had hoped. (Johnson includes The Washington Post in a long list of publications that he says did not push the candidates hard enough about climate change.)

“It’s an incredible dereliction of duty,” Johnson says. “The behavior of the two parties, the behavior of the media, the behavior of business leadership is criminal. The cost of silence is death. Much of this silence is simply cowardice and greed.”

Johnson and his colleagues focused their energies on making the argument that climate change is responsible for an increase in devastating storms, droughts and flooding — arguments that have gained more traction among some politicians since Hurricane Sandy wrought catastrophic damage in the waning days of the campaign. But Johnson now thinks that he and other activists need to tweak their approach. They must do more than make a case about climate change — and they must make a political case.

Next time, Johnson says, he won’t stop talking about what he calls “the sin of fossil fuels.” But he’ll also be talking a lot more about another claim he makes, a claim soaked in aspiration: that emphasizing climate change will win a candidate votes in Ohio.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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