President Joe Biden made little effort to disguise his relief when he addressed reporters on the day after the midterms. The Democratic Party beat back the “giant red wave” pundits had predicted, the president observed, “so I’m not going to change.” If the president recognizes his party’s good fortune at defying the usual midterm losses, though, it’s not clear he knows how to capitalize on it.
In that address, Biden pledged to use some of his newfound store of political capital to seek a new ban on assault weapons. Since then, he’s made clear that that push is serious. This pursuit is foolish for two reasons. First, it’s not going to come to anything. Second, it could sacrifice Democrats’ unexpected opportunity to split the small, fractious, incoming Republican House majority.
If the president recognizes his party’s good fortune at defying the usual midterm losses, it’s not clear he knows how to capitalize on it.
In his post-election remarks, Biden unintentionally highlighted the futility of pushing an assault weapons ban when he reminded the public that this Congress was the first in 30 years to pass any federal legislation restricting access to firearms. All but the most plugged-in partisans have forgotten that law, even though it was passed in June. Months after its passage, the problem of gun violence still ranks high in surveys of voters’ priorities.
Democrats might argue that disconnect is because the law didn’t go far enough, for which Republicans are to blame. But that’s how our system works: Republicans get a vote — and they’d argue that when voters fear the randomness of mass shootings, the horrors of gang violence, and even the prevalence of millions of firearms in private hands, legislation that closed the “boyfriend loophole” and raised the age to purchase a semi-automatic centerfire rifle to 21 does little to address those concerns. Indeed, what constitutionally sound federal law could?
Next year, Republicans will have even more votes, and their control of the lower chamber of Congress will effectively end the legislative phase of Joe Biden’s first term in office. Even the Democratic lawmakers who have dutifully followed Biden’s lead and renewed calls for a stricter bans on firearm ownership admit the votes for such a thing do not exist.
So, perhaps the call for a new assault weapons ban (which 15 Democratic senators voted against when it was last proposed nine years ago) is a mere positioning statement? Voters aren’t in the market for posturing either, but that’s at least defensible as political strategy. It would, however, sacrifice one potential advantage voters bequeathed to Democrats in the midterms.
The House Republican caucus in the 118th Congress will have a narrow majority and will likely be typified by weak leadership. It would be political malpractice, then, to hand the GOP an issue on which the party is wholly united. Few matters would mend internal fences as quickly as a concerted effort to reinstate a ban on firearms ownership that expired nearly twenty years ago.
It would be political malpractice to hand the GOP an issue on which the party is wholly united.
Conversely, there are plenty of issues on Democrats’ wish lists that would not induce the kind of unity the Republican conference presently lacks. The newly populist GOP of 2023 is supposedly far more favorable to fiscal profligacy and social engineering than the stodgy old conservatives the nationalist wing insists have been marginalized. Democrats should be eager to test that proposition and make Republicans put taxpayer money where their mouths are.
A decade ago, you could count on an overwhelming majority of Republicans to oppose a “public option” for health insurance. As recently as 2017, three quarters of Republican and GOP-leaning voters preferred a “system based on private insurance.” But in a late October 2020 New York Times/Sienna College Research Institute survey, 45% of self-described Republicans backed a government-run health insurance plan while 47% still oppose the notion. Five months later, a Morning Consult poll determined that 56% of GOP voters support a “public option.” If there’s a quiet sea change afoot, Democrats would be wise to explore its parameters.
Likewise, a September 2021 poll (commissioned by the online borrowers’ marketplace LendingTree) found surprising softness in the GOP’s formerly firm opposition to a so-called universal basic income program. While 53% of Republicans endorsed the proposal, 47% were opposed. Support for such a program varies depending on the way the proposition is put to poll respondents, but an October 2020 PRRI poll similarly found a majority of self-identified Republican voters (52%) backed a “minimum income” program while 48% opposed the notion.
A similar case can be made for labor regulations, a pathway to citizenship for illegal residents and even climate-related investments. The devil is always in the details of these proposals: The subsequent debate over them would likely show that the Republican Party is not wholly transformed into a vehicle for bigger government. Gauging an idea’s popularity alone fails to capture salience or resonance, and opponents of radical transformations to the American social compact are likely to be more engaged in the fight than their supporters.
But at least Democrats would raise the stakes of the debate by forcing Republicans to confront the contradictions of their new favorable disposition toward the coercive power of the beneficent state. Gun control, by contrast, does not. A more imaginative approach to confronting the Republican majority in Congress would test the tensile strength of the “working-class coalition” the GOP wants to build.