‘Guns, gays, and immigration’

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) meeting with Newtown families
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) meeting with Newtown families
Associated Press

Reflecting on the week, one Democratic senator reportedly told a White House official, “Guns, gays and immigration – it’s too much. I can be with you on one or two of them, but not all three.”

It wasn’t just an isolated quote. Reviewing the news this morning, this line of thought appears to be popping up all over: Vice President Biden told gun-safety proponents that several senators weren’t prepared to vote for both firearm restrictions and immigration – “they had the political bandwidth for only one tough vote.”

Another report said senators “feel the need to ration their political capital and courage and limit the amount of voter outrage they are willing to incur.” They were prepared to endorse marriage equality and vote for immigration reform, but the trifecta was too much to ask.

Many senators could afford to support one, maybe two, but not all three, said Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), the lead negotiator of a failed bipartisan plan to expand background checks on gun purchases.

“It takes a lot of work and effort,” he said Thursday, referring to the pileup of contentious issues on the Senate calendar, “and probably someone is saying to them, ‘Do you want to take on two or three?’ “

This is far from compelling. As Ezra Klein explained very well, “[T]his isn’t just an explanation for a vote. It’s a salve for a guilty conscience. This is not the sort of rationalization that would be leaking from the chamber if senators were confident they’d done the right thing. It’s a rationalization for people who feel they did the wrong thing, and want to tell themselves it’s the cost for doing the right thing later, on an even larger scale.”

Quite right. It’s especially unpersuasive in this case because of the specific issues at hand.

A wide variety of senators endorsed marriage equality, and I’m glad, but this didn’t take too much in the way of political courage – there was no vote, there is no pending legislation, most Americans already agree, and Republicans aren’t going on the offensive to make anyone pay a political price for supporting equal marriage rights. If political capital was spent, it wasn’t a whole lot.

On preventing gun violence, there was a bill and a vote, but again, the capital investment doesn’t seem too daunting – proponents had bipartisan cover; the key provision was written by two conservatives; and the polls were entirely one-sided.

The politics of immigration are more complicated, at least for Republicans, but here too we see a landscape in which support for reform is the smart political move.

The oddity is the confusion among these senators about what constitutes “courage.” These guys don’t like casting tough, unpopular votes, and if party leaders are pushing members to buck popular will on hot-button, culture-war issues over and over again, it stands to reason that we’d see some fatigue.

But for goodness sake, how tough can it be to side with the American mainstream a few times, a year and a half before an election?

Joe Manchin, Culture Wars and Culture War

'Guns, gays, and immigration'