“An overwhelming majority of Americans agree with us on the need for universal background checks,” President Obama said during his announcement of new gun control rules and proposals Wednesday. “Including more than 70 percent of the National Rifle Association’s members, according to one survey. So there’s no reason we can’t do this.”
That 70 percent figure was very familiar to the gray-haired man slumped in the second row of the Old Executive Building auditorium. John Feinblatt, the chief gun adviser to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg oversees Bloomberg’s gun-control advocacy group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which had commissioned the Republican pollster Frank Luntz to conduct that very survey.
Like his mayor, Feinblatt has consistently criticized the president as failing to do anything more than talk about preventing gun violence, especially when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. (“When they were in power they didn’t do it,” Bloomberg, an independent, said in an interview last week.)
But here was Obama, in a major speech, doing and saying much of what Bloomberg and Feinblatt wanted. In one regard, it could be seen as a victory for the studiously postpartisan mayor’s strategy of heaping more blame on the party that agreed with him than the one that didn’t. And Bloomberg was not one to let the opportunity slip by.
“Today it’s clear that the president and vice president heard us,” Bloomberg said at a press conference in New York on Wednesday after the president’s address.
But it also demonstrated how much the ground under Bloomberg had moved since the Newtown, Conn., school massacre last month. Now that a parade of elected officials – including the highest in the land – were calling for gun control, Bloomberg had lost his status as the most prominent voice on the issue. Some people have suggested this is a good thing, as the cosmopolitan mayor doesn’t exactly translate well in the Southern strongholds of gun rights activists -- a critique that Feinblatt says overlooks the fact that the mayor was “the one person with courage.”
But it also misses the promise of Bloomberg’s involvement on this issue that matters most: The mayor has the distinction of being a multibillionaire politician who has the potential to change the landscape on guns with the signing of a check. The question for Bloomberg, then, is not just how much he’s willing to give — “You want a number, and I’m not going to give you one,” he has said -- it’s which candidates will bear the brunt of his largesse.
In the interview last week, Bloomberg said he would be a “counterweight” to the NRA, but he also made it clear he does not want to be the George Soros of guns, a blue-state-based billionaire giving blanket funding to progressive causes. Instead, Bloomberg wants to project bipartisan credibility to persuade Republicans to abandon the absolutism of the NRA. Hence the Bloomberg-commissioned survey by Luntz, who said, “The poll shows that if the NRA were not so absolute they would have an easier time protecting Second Amendment rights.”
While the NRA prides itself on playing in hundreds of races, even ones that it might lose, Bloomberg suggested that he’s going to pick his spots.
“It depends on what the opportunities are,” Bloomberg said. “I can certainly use my own money to try and educate people as to what I think is the truth. I can use my own money to support individual candidates; I have a right to do that.”
In the minutes after Obama’s announcement Wednesday, Feinblatt, who sat directly across from Vice President Biden during his meeting with gun control advocates last week, gave a preview of the mayor’s spin: “The White House is listening.” But in keeping with the Bloomberg strategy of beating up on Democrats and essentially giving a pass to the House Republicans who’ve shown little interest in passing the mayor’s priorities, Feinblatt turned to demanding “action from Congress.”
Another of the mayor’s key allies, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, did the same. Seated a couple of rows behind Feinblatt, Kelly expressed approval with the president, then added: “We are going to see in terms of congressional action who’s there, and I think it’s going to start in the Senate. And, obviously, the Senate is Democratic, so we’ll be able to judge their resolve pretty quickly. Hopefully, they are on board.”
In the interviews with Bloomberg and his top aides last week, this was the consistent theme. Feinblatt said that “Washington had washed its hands” of guns after incorrectly ascribing their losses in 1994 to their support for the assault weapons ban. (Washington is their polite way of saying Democrats.)
Since then, Feinblatt said, former leaders on the issue had “run for the hills” and “clearly the Democratic leadership had made a decision.” Read: Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), the former House member and Obama chief of staff.
New York Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson, a former top Democratic operative for the the Schumer and Hillary Clinton election campaigns, has fully embraced Bloomberg’s damn-the-parties philosophy. During the 2012 election, Wolfson was entrusted to spend $10 million of the mayor’s money through Bloomberg’s SuperPAC, Independence USA, on races against NRA-backed candidates. Bloomberg-backed candidates won four out of five of them, including the unseating of Joe Baca, a Democrat from California.
Last week, Wolfson, dapperly dressed with a herringbone coat folded over a chair next to him in a City Hall conference room labeled “Bronx,” said that “the mayor has come to the conclusion that electoral advocacy is a prerequisite for legislative change.” As Bloomberg has waded into these contests, Wolfson said, “legislators need to know there is accountability on their votes.”
But he reiterated the central tenant of the Bloomberg method, “The way you change legislation is by changing legislators. As far as he is concerned, it has nothing to do with party.”
Bloomberg explicitly stated as much in the interview. “You have to change the people who are in the House” he said. But either because of his political strategy, or his actual belief that all lawmakers are spineless and indistinguishable regardless of their party affiliation, he refused to identify the House Republicans as the problem. Democrats at one time, he reminded, “had the House, the Senate and the White House. Zero. I’ve said that. When people say, ‘Oh, It’s those Republicans,’ I said, ‘Time out. It’s not just Republicans.’”
On Thursday afternoon Biden told the United States Conference of Mayors -- the people Bloomberg says are on the front lines of the war against gun violence -- that gun control was the “more urgent and immediate” issue facing the country. Perhaps Obama has acted under political pressure from Bloomberg, as the mayor’s aides suggest, or perhaps the new attention to the issue comes from the president’s conviction and a rising public sensibility since the murder of the children and teachers at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School -- as the White House sees it.
Whatever the Obama’s motive for fully engaging in the issue, the president, a Democrat, has come through for Bloomberg.
A week after the mayor argued that both parties have been equally absent on the issue, will he now see Democrats as his stronger allies in the fight for gun control and relax his bipartisan orthodoxy and put his resources behind them?
Days before Obama made a vigorous case for stricter gun laws, Bloomberg said, “The real question you should be asking is what happens next.” The same can now be asked of Bloomberg.