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Lessons of the New Gun Politics

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I found Alec MacGillis’ discussion of the new gun politics quite interesting. I’m not sure that we are seeing the death of the NRA here, but there’s no question that continued support of background checks at gun shows is positive. From a political perspective, what’s interesting is the tack that Bloomberg’s gun-control group is taking. They simply don’t care which party you are if you don’t support background checks. There’s been some talk of the wisdom of attacking Mark Pryor in an election year, since an Arkansas Republican won’t be better on gun control and will be worse on a lot of other issues. But it might be that not caring about the short-term is the best way to play the long game.

This is already causing anxiety among Democrats: Reid’s office has pleaded with Bloomberg to lay off Pryor and Begich. (“What does Bloomberg care?” says the Senate staffer.) Some Democrats are also worried about harsh ads that Bloomberg and Americans for Responsible Solutions, the group founded by Gabby Giffords, have been running against Ayotte and Flake.12 “I certainly worry about boxing senators into a corner in the short run,” Murphy, the Connecticut senator, told me. “I’m not sure the smart thing is to run [the ads] right now.”

It’s true the strategy has a potential cost: A Democrat like Pryor might be easier to persuade down the line. But the groups believe that in order to get self-interested politicians thinking differently, first they have to get them scared. “For too long we’ve been playing Mister Nice Guy,” Gross says. Wolfson adds: “Bottom line, this is not a movement that has spent too much time running ads the last few decades. We’ve seen what the results are.”

One complication is that no vulnerable Republicans who opposed the legislation are up for reelection in 2014, leaving Bloomberg with fewer short-term targets.13 This is partly why the gun-control movement wants the background-check bill to pass the Senate—to press John Boehner to bring it up for a House vote. Even if it failed, members would have to take a stance, opening up dozens more races for Bloomberg to invest in. The group has also not ruled out spending on state-level candidates.

I think about this in terms of the labor and environmental movements. Like gun control before Newtown, no politician fears either of these movements. The correct assumption is that both will not only support Democrats, no matter how bad they are, but they will also provide money and GOTV operations needed for candidates to win. They can be ignored. Labor has struggled with this issue since the Carter years. For environmentalists, it’s a issue that goes back a decade or so. Neither movement’s leaders knows what to do about it.

It’s kind of standard practice at this blog to say that “heightening the contradictions” is a terrible idea. I agree with that. But it’s also hard to get around the point that the only thing politicians care about is reelection and the only way labor or environmentalists are going to get anyone to listen to them is to stick a shiv in the Democrats who don’t support them. They might not be able to rally the bipartisan troops and emotional volume like gun control, but enviros have huge money and labor has the GOTV operation. If the gun control movement succeeds in turning politicians to the left on guns, the wisdom of actively undermining the people who won’t pay you back gets harder to deny.

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