After years of deadly mass shootings across the country, and with President Obama voicing deep frustration with inaction by Republicans in Congress, the Democratic candidates led by Hillary Rodham Clinton vowed in a debate here Tuesday night to toughen restrictions on gun owners and gun manufacturers. Most seemed not merely willing but determined and eager to lead the push for gun control into next year’s general election and effectively declared war on the National Rifle Association.
Back in July, the Washington Post noted, "For at least the past several decades, Democrats seeking national office have often been timid on the issue of guns for fear of alienating firearms owners." It was undeniably true -- guns have served as a powerful wedge issue, drawing lines Dems were afraid to cross.
As recently as 2004, none other than Howard Dean would occasionally brag about his A rating from the National Rifle Association, a group whose support he routinely sought as governor.
That was then; this is now. The Washington Post reported overnight that there's been "a sea change" on the issue in Democratic politics.
That's really not an exaggeration. If you missed the debate, search the transcript for "NRA." Note that the acronym pops up 14 times -- and none of the references were complimentary.
Indeed, one of Martin O'Malley's biggest applause lines of the night came towards the end of the debate when he was asked which "enemy" he's most proud of. The former Maryland governor replied, "The National (pause for emphasis) Rifle (pause for emphasis) Association."
Even Bernie Sanders, who's arguably been less progressive on guns than any other major issue throughout his congressional career, found himself on the defensive during the debate. The senator felt the need to boast, slipping into third person, "Bernie Sanders has a D-minus voting rating from the NRA."
Removed from any sense of historical context, a casual viewer probably wouldn't have found any of this surprising. A group of progressive presidential candidates talked about their support for reducing gun violence and their hostility towards the NRA. It sounds like a dog-bites-man story -- of course it's what we'd expect from a national Democratic debate.
But those assumptions are mistaken. What we saw on the Las Vegas stage on Tuesday night was unusual because in recent decades, Democratic presidential hopefuls have gone out of their way to avoid talk like this. These candidates, however, rightly or wrongly, believe the politics of guns has changed to such a degree that they can support life-saving gun measures and nevertheless compete in a general election.
Naturally, the NRA is convinced that the Democratic strategy will backfire. But let's not forget a point we kicked around in July: it's slowly dawning on Dems that as the NRA becomes more extreme, there’s no placating the group. Right-wing groups and activists are going to go after Democrats whether the party tries to make the NRA happy or not.
Just ask former Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who eagerly tried to keep the NRA on his side, only to find during his re-election campaign that the NRA targeted him with a vengeance anyway.
To this extent, the NRA has given up its credibility. The group’s message used to effectively be, “Play ball with us and we’ll leave you alone.” That’s transformed into, “We’re coming after you, whether you try to work with us or not.”
With incentives like these, Democrats might as well speak their minds, since condemnations from the right are inevitable either way.