Often stories in Washington are reported, and play out, along clear lines of division – Republicans versus Democrats, interest groups on the left versus interest groups on the right, conservative talking heads versus liberal talking heads – and the cloak of partisanship hovers over each legislative maneuver.
But while some like President Obama have still worked feverishly to place the current gun debate at the feet of congressional Republicans, the reality is that its fate lies largely in the hands of Senate Democrats. And what we've learned in recent days is that, to the chagrin of Chuck Schumer and other Democratic leaders, the 2014 election cycle may be much different than 2012.
Throughout the last two years, Republicans watched with frustration as Senate Democrats, led by Schumer, used their majority's control of the Senate floor as an extension of their political arm at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). Armed with poll-tested messaging points and exhaustive micro-targeting data outlining which sectors of the electorate to hone-in on, Democrats forced votes on bills that, by their own off-the-record admissions, stood no chance of becoming law, but which allowed them to advance key campaign narratives.
From the Violence Against Women's Act, to the aptly-named DREAM Act, to their push for tax hikes on millionaires, Schumer used a unified Democratic caucus to hammer Republicans and portray them as anti-women, anti-Latino and anti-middle class. And coupled with some unexpected gifts, such as Missouri Congressman Todd Akin's outrageous comments on rape and a slow-footed response by Mitt Romney to the 47 percent video, the Democrats' transparently political efforts largely paid-off.
While it was, on the one hand, a complete abdication of legislative leadership as our country faced record unemployment and a skyrocketing debt, it was also an impressive display of pure modern-day, bare-knuckle politics.
But even after being forced to retreat on a renewal of the assaults weapons ban and limits on high-capacity magazines in the Senate Democrats' gun bill – the two issues, I might add, that would have had even the slightest relevance to the Newtown tragedy – while still struggling to marshal their members behind a bill, Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer are quickly discovering that 2014 isn't 2012.
And more politically worrisome, if the gun bill fails they won't be able to point fingers at congressional Republicans, because the failure will lie in their own Senate Democratic caucus.
As Caitlin Huey-Burns with RealClearPolitics smartly observed yesterday:
[Max] Baucus is one of a handful of Democratic senators from red states up for re-election in 2014 who wish they didn't have to vote on any kind of legislation that has the word "gun" in it. Others in the same boat are Mark Begich of Alaska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
And the conundrum facing red-state Democrats is receiving widespread attention in their own backyards. The Shreveport Times, for example, reports how Mary Landrieu is being targeted by both gun control advocates and opponents, while the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has the State GOP today hammering Mark Pryor's flip-flop on the assaults weapons ban.
Even red-state Democrats who aren't up for re-election next year are clearly approaching this debate with their own political futures in mind. As newly-elected Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp tells the New York Times today in explaining why she disagrees with the gun control lobby despite entreaties from several Newtown families:
"In our part of the country, this isn't an issue...This is a way of life. This is how people feel, and it is extraordinarily difficult to explain that, especially to grieving parents." Bottom line, she said, "I'm going to represent my state."
Of course, this isn't stopping some on the left from ignoring these political realities and trying to score political points. Appearing on NBC's Press Pass with David Gregory two Sundays ago, former Obama campaign manager and Chairman of Organizing For Action (OFA) Jim Messina, insisted with a straight-face that OFA's goal was to simply help pass the President's agenda, saying in part:
OFA is a nonpartisan organization – it's going to work with members of both parties, to advocate for the president's legislative agenda. It's not political.
Yet, less than 24 hours later, OFA announced a new ad campaign targeting 11 Senators on their opposition to the gun control bill – 10 of which were Republicans and, not surprisingly, no single Democrat up for re-election next year was included, despite the stated opposition by several of them.
Let's hope no one simply takes Jim Messina at his word anymore.
Nonetheless, these shameless tactics by the Obama political team won't allow Democratic leaders to hide from the political reality that the fate of this effort lies in the hands of their own party. And unfortunately for them, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid isn't in much of a position to take his 2014 Democrats to the woodshed either.
Facing a very difficult re-election in 2010, Harry Reid desperately worked to bolster his Second Amendment credentials; who did he stand side-by-side with on the campaign trail that year in opening up a new shooting park in Clark County? None other than NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre.
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Updated 11/5/13: Brian Walsh remains a paid adviser to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.