This is, of course, the imbalance the president tried to counteract with his nonstop campaigning and use of the Newtown, Conn., families. So far it has not worked, even with Democrats.
There is an issue at play other than intensity: the geographical divide. While pro-gun control forces have more people on their side, each state gets two senators. Hence, this is one case in which smaller, more-rural states exercise disproportionate influence in the legislative process.
That added influence by less-populous states is especially critical on this issue because rural states are also the ones generally more protective of gun rights. So you have red-state hold-outssuch as Democrats Max Baucus (Mont.), Mark Begich (Alaska), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.). Oh yes, and then with a 60-vote threshold, Republicans have made it that much harder to navigate around red-state Democrats. Add on top of all of that the 2014 election in which a number of these very same red-state Democratic senators are on the ballot and you see the extent of the problem.
Now Democrats could have threatened to primary these Democrats or withhold campaign funds, but that’s not very realistic in states in which these moderates may barely hang on in an election in which the Democrats could lose their majority. The White House can try to ply them with pork, although that’s a lot harder to do these days since it isn’t clear there will even be a budget. And the president’s not very popular in many states, so an offer to campaign with and for these Democrats isn’t very enticing. For now it seems the Democrats may try to water down the Toomey-Manchin amendment and try to wean away a few red-state Democrats. It is a sort of legislative limbo in which the bar gets lower and lower, but in this case it’s not clear the red-state Democrats want to play the game at all.
It is a misnomer, then, to blame the “gun lobby” for the difficulty in passing legislation. The red-state Democrats, like most of their Republican colleagues, are reflecting their own constituents’ views. If you polled specifically in the states where these Democrats come from, I bet you’d find gun regulation and bans a whole lot less popular than the nation at large. (I imagine some of them are in fact polling.) If the president were more popular in red states or more able to induce enthusiasm, then that might have made a difference.
And it is still possible that the needle can be threaded. Unfortunately for the president, whatever passes will bear scant resemblance to his desired legislation.
Heck, at the end of the day the only thing that might pass a combination of Republicans and nervous red-state Democrats might be the Grassley-Cruz bill to be rolled out today. An adviser to Cruz told me Tuesday evening, “The Grassley-Cruz proposal preserves the Second Amendment while fixing the NICs system, providing resources to help address mental health and school safety, protecting veterans from false health determinations, and addressing gun trafficking and straw purchasing.”A senior Senate aide calls it a “good bill” aimed at “shoring up existing law.”
If in fact the president’s gun initiative falters, his most likely “win” for his second term would be immigration, where a compromise crafted without him and sold by Republican star Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has a real chance of passing. But then that would be more a win for the Senate and Rubio specifically than for the White House. The budget? That seems like the longest shot of the three legislative efforts.