Flake hopes dissembling will solve his gun problem

Updated

A month after Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) joined his GOP colleagues in killing a bipartisan background-check bill, the rookie senator is still struggling with the political fallout. This ad from Mayors Against Illegal Guns is the latest to put Flake on the defensive.

Flake’s strategy, at least for now, is built entirely on dissembling.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) is pushing back against attack ads that say he broke his promise to support passing new gun laws.

“If you are anywhere close to a television set in Arizona in the coming days, you’ll likely see an ad about gun control financed by NYC Mayor Bloomberg,” Flake wrote Friday on his Facebook page. “Contrary to the ad, I did vote to strengthen background checks.”

I can appreciate why the ads have gotten Flake’s attention, but this “vote to strengthen background checks” rhetoric is exactly the sort of thing that rankles. Flake must realize how misleading this is, but is counting on public confusion to make his political troubles go away. It’s cynical, and the public deserves better.

Indeed, it’s apparently become the standard strategy for every Republican senator facing pushback from his his/her constituents – Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) is pulling exact same stunt.

Let’s set the record straight once more.

Flake’s pitch – “Contrary to the ad, I did vote to strengthen background checks” – is technically true. It’s also true that Flake filibustered the Manchin/Toomey compromise on background checks that enjoyed broad public support. So, Flake is relying on semantics games as a defense for doing the wrong thing? Yes, that’s exactly what he’s doing.

As we’ve discussed before, conservatives are relying on specific definitions of words and phrases that don’t quite line up with what everyone else is talking about. As Sahil Kapur explained recently:

There’s a critical distinction to be made between universal background checks, a robust policy that would require criminal checks for virtually all gun purchases – and a more milquetoast proposal to beef up mental health information in existing databases. The former is championed by gun control advocates and experts who say it would have a significant impact. The latter is supported by the NRA and does nothing to make it harder for criminals to buy firearms at private sales or gun shows, where background checks are not required by law.

It’s obviously an important clarification. The right is generally comfortable with improving the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, by integrating mental health records, for example. When Flake endorses stronger “background checks,” this is what he’s talking about, not closing the gun-show loophole.

Flake is counting on voters losing sight of the distinction.

Just as important, though, is the unstated concession: Flake is feeling defensive, which gives away much of the game. Under the NRA’s worldview, which Flake supports and defends, there’s nothing for conservative senators to be embarrassed about – by crushing expanded background checks, Republicans are taking a stand against tyranny. Voters love freedom and need not fear electoral consequences for voting the way the NRA demands.

Or so the argument goes.

But Flake’s cynical defense suggests that below the surface, he knows the NRA’s boasts about the political landscape aren’t true.

Jeff Flake and Background Checks

Flake hopes dissembling will solve his gun problem

Updated