Why Gun Protests Might Change Everything in Congress
(Bloomberg View) -- All politicians are paranoid; the big question is what they're paranoid about.
After massive nationwide protests led by student survivors of the Parkland school shooting, there's no shortage of predictions about the coming sea change in the politics of gun control. Behind such a shift would be one big reason: It's now completely possible, even likely, that politicians could decide this year to break from the paranoias that drive many of their decisions.
It's been true for decades that the gun issue pitted large polling majorities in favor of tighter restrictions against an intense organized group advocating for gun rights. But the particular stories of the last 20 years have been, at their center, party stories.
On the Democratic side, the long shadow of the 1994 elections has begun to recede in the past five years. When the Democrats were shocked by losing both houses of Congress -- for the first time since the 1950s -- gun control wound up being a major scapegoat. It's not clear whether that was the right lesson to draw, however.
The Bill Clinton White House had a strong incentive to deflect blame away from Clinton's own ill-fated transition and chaotic early administration. More generally, politically preoccupied people -- from candidates to campaign professionals to observers in the media -- tend to look for election explanations that imply rational, logical connections between policy choices by incumbents and reactions by voters. They're less likely to just accept that (in the case of 1994) a combination of stubbornly slow economic growth and long-overdue party adjustments in the South were big factors in the landslide. Democratic politicians decided to blame gun measures. Most of them steered clear of the issue ever since.
To put it another way: The lessons politicians learn from events can be far-fetched and illogical, but still have serious consequences in their subsequent behavior.
On the Republican side, the important lesson isn't directly about gun policy. Instead, it's the feeling among most of the party's congressional members that a primary challenge represents the most serious threat to their re-election. Therefore, the safest course of action is to pay far more attention to very conservative voters than to marginal Republicans and other swing voters.
Again, whether that was true or not is complicated. After all, far more incumbents are defeated in general elections than in primaries, and even seemingly safe seats can become vulnerable over time as district demographics change and party loyalties shift within demographic groups. Throw in a good year for Democrats, and a large percentage of Republican incumbents who may have thought general elections were no challenge may change their minds. The Cook Political Report currently considers 167 Republicans-held seats "safe." The remaining 73 have some measure of vulnerability, and even some of those 167 may wind up feeling threatened even if they never come close to losing. All House Republicans believe their majority is in danger, even if their own seat isn't.
Again, this isn't as much about whether politicians' fears are rational or not; what matters is if the fear is real and that they act on it.
So why could gun safety activism encourage both sides to rethink these core beliefs? It's very likely 2018 will be a very good year for Democrats, mainly because out-parties almost always do well in midterms and because Trump is unusually unpopular. If that happens, Democratic politicians may or may not credit the gun issue for their wins. But it does seem likely that they will at the very least decide that support for some gun safety measures is no longer the electoral equivalent of poison. Removing that bit of paranoia from Democratic Party actors will mean it's far more likely Democrats will raise the issue in the future.
On the Republican side, I think it's unlikely that many party actors would conclude that support for the NRA was costly. But would losing the House lead them to shift their focus from primaries to general elections? That would leave Republicans in Congress at least somewhat more likely to seek compromise than they have been in recent years. And anything that pushes Republicans to look for common ground on gun safety would be a significant shift from how the politics of the issue have played out for the last 20 years. The more visible activism, the more likely guns will be one of the obvious areas for any potential Republican compromise in the future.
All of that would be true even if recent gun activism turns out to be a temporary flare-up. It's quite possible, however, that what's happening instead is some degree of institutionalization of advocacy in this policy area. If so, Democrats will move on gun safety because advocates will move towards being a party-aligned interest group, and they'll win the ability to directly press Democratic candidates to respond to their agenda. U.S. political parties are permeable; it's not as much a matter of outsiders pressing the party to change as it is outsiders becoming part of the party and competing and cooperating with other party actors.
But it appears to me that -- if Democrats do sweep the 2018 midterm elections -- it's likely that gun safety advocates have already advanced their cause quite a bit, regardless of whether their movement fades away or thrives.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Although certainly a better start from Clinton would have helped Democrats quite a bit. He wound up, over the course of eight years, a popular and mostly very competent president, but he started off poorly and it showed in his early low approval ratings.
I think this is a likely result even if the most common Republican response to an electoral bloodbath is to decide the fault lies with insufficiently conservative politicians. Even if that's what the party as a whole believes, it's still possible that individual members of Congress newly concerned about general elections could be more likely to accept compromises.
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