Blaming Manchin and the Democrats for the Gun Bill's Failure

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 17 2013 6:31 PM

Blaming Manchin and the Democrats for the Gun Bill's Failure

After Manchin-Toomey went down, six short of the 60 votes* needed in today's debate, the Huffington Post ran this splash page:

Screen shot 2013-04-17 at 5.23.11 PM

Those four Democrats opposed Manchin-Toomey, and HuffPost had a ton of success shaming those Democrats who were slow to "evolve" on gay marriage, running splash pages just like this one. But ... why? Had all four Democrats voted "aye" and had Harry Reid switched his vote to "aye" (he voted no to retain the right to reconsider), the bill would have failed by one vote. And yet HuffPost names the Democrats who killed the bill, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee announces (with more fanfare than impact) that it'll run newspaper ads attacking the Dems.

It reads strangely, but not as strangely as this BuzzFeed take on the vote, which casts the whole thing as the end of "a months-long campaign by Sen. Joe Manchin that was marked from start to finish by a series of messaging missteps and strategic blunders."

What were those misteps? On March 18, Manchin "accidentally let slip that he was headed the next day to a meeting with the National Rifle Association to try to woo the powerful gun lobby's support for his legislation," the bill that would become Manchin-Toomey. He fought to keep that off the record, and lost, but he kept talking to the NRA. Which makes this part of the BuzzFeed story perplexing.

The press secretary in Manchin's office told BuzzFeed that morning that the NRA was staying "neutral" on the bill. But minutes after the story was published and the press conference concluded, the NRA released a statement disavowing background checks. NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam later went even further: "We are opposed to Toomey-Manchin. Period."
The confusion over whether the group would oppose the bill undermined Manchin's negotiations, and publicly pitted the two parties against one another on a crucial day for the effort.

How much "confusion" was there? Based on a quick read of articles from that day, April 10, I find very little confusion. What happened, that morning, was BuzzFeed running a story titled "NRA Still Neutral On Senate Background Check Compromise." Manchin's press secretary Katie Longo told BuzzFeed that "the Senators have been talking to the NRA, but they're still neutral." This was emailed out to reporters as a scoop about the NRA "staying neutral"—not quite the same thing, before the compromise was officially rolled out. Sure enough, within minutes, reporters asking the NRA for its position were told that BuzzFeed was wrong. After the TV rollout began, the NRA came out against background checks.

Today, after the vote, I asked Manchin about the timing of the NRA's announcement. Did he know before he started talking?

"I wasn't blindsided," said Manchin. "I was disappointed but I wasn't blindsided. They called, and it was a very curteous call, but we had a difference of opinion. I did know about that."

His statement from that day sort of backs him up. Asked about the NRA's stance on the bill, Manchin said, "I cannot tell you what their position is." BuzzFeed interpreted this as Manchin "appear[ing] to confirm the NRA's tacit cooperation." It was a perfect storm: One spokesman overstating a fact (that the NRA hadn't bailed yet), one outlet finding a scooplet that didn't exist (implying that the NRA was signing on), and Manchin himself trying to keep warm relations with the NRA. It also looks like a storm with limited range. Politico's story on the deal made no mention of the Katie Longo statement/NRA response. The NYT only wrote that the senators "consulted" with the NRA.

My point: Democrats played a careful game, giving away a ton of ground, early on, willing to accept a background checks compromise that was a fraction of what liberals wanted. Now that they haven't got it, done in by Republicans who've backed similar bills in the past, the first shame and blame goes to—the Democrats! That's probably a temporary condition.

"The story here is a Republican filibuster," said Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy after the vote. "The filibuster stopped it. That's hard to explain to these senators, why a majority in the Senate doesn't prevail. I don't think you can explain this filibuster just based on the influence of the NRA. There's a significant portion of the Republican caucus who are gun control Darwinists. They just believe everyone should have guns, and the good guys should shoot the bad guys." And what explained the Democratic noes? "A lot of 'em had concerns about the impact of the bill in rural areas. We thought we solved that. I'll be interested in the reactions they get when they head back home."

*They would have been five short had Harry Reid not went "no," and he only did so in order to consider the bill later. Wouldn't have gotten them over the hump.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter.