Opening Act: 63% of the Population, and Still Losing

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 18 2013 8:04 AM

Opening Act: 63% of the Population, and Still Losing

After last afternoon's pivotal vote on Manchin-Toomey, a reader emailed to say he'd looked "at how the vote broke down if you factor in the size of the Senators’ respective constituencies." Each senator represents half a state, obviously, so he broke those populations in half.* The result: Around 198.4 million people were represented by senators who backed Manchin-Toomey. Around 114.9 million were represented by senators that opposed it. Those backing the amendment represented around 63 percent of the population.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

It doesn't matter, obviously. Jonathan Chait has a depressed liberal's guide to the structural reasons why the gun amendment struggled. "Owing to the Republican tilt of the Senate map," writes Chait, "Democrats owe their Senate majority to their ability to hold on to a number of seats in heavily Republican states." Indeed, two of the Democrats' red-state seats came to them through a mixture of amazing campaigning and fluke scandals—Jon Tester's seat in Montana, Mark Begich's seat in Alaska. Tester voted for the bill, and Begich opposed it, assuming that "signaling cultural affinity" with pro-gun voters was the safest way to shore up his 2014 campaign. Like two other senators who opposed the bill, he has an "A" rating from the NRA.

Centrist Democrats simply think the Begiches were wrong, and that the surrender today makes surrender tomorrow more likely. Manchin-Toomey was "branded" about as well as any gun bill can be, endorsed by a man whose state handed Barack Obama a defeat in every county and a man who spent most of his life in politics trying to primary Republicans. The watered-down bill was only as watery as a background checks bill that narrowly failed in 1999, with more Republicans supporting it. Democrats had come to view the NRA as unsavory liars who had to be beaten on something legislatively, just as they were beaten at the polls in 2016, to shift back the center of debate. They failed.


What do I mean when I sum up Democratic opinion of the NRA? After the vote, the NRA's legislative director Chris Cox claimed Manchin-Toomey "would have criminalized certain private transfers of firearms between honest citizens," even though that was explicitly sliced out of the bill.

Allahpundit repeats a sorta-damning factoid about Obama: "He ignored gun control almost completely when he had 60 Democratic votes in the Senate early in his first term." Actually, had Democrats been pressured to pass a gun bill in the first term, it would have been easiest to push it through Nancy Pelosi's House. Even some of the unpredictable who would vote against Obamacare, like Rep. Stephen Lynch, might have backed a bill. You can look at Obama's decision not to move on this as cowardice with an eye on re-election; as soon as he was safely in, he remembered the issue. It played out a bit like George W. Bush on Social Security, an issue that was in his portfolio but wasn't ever banged on about during the campaign.

The difference is Newtown. I get no sense that Democrats would have moved ahead on this issue, Mike Bloomberg be damned, if Adam Lanza hadn't opened fire in that school. The instinct to look at a tragedy and say "we need to do something, fast!" isn't necessarily admirable. It's brought us all manner of lousy national security legislation. But that was how we got here.

Meanwhile, this op-ed credited to Gabrielle Giffords appears to be the official galvanizing document of the whole story. I notice that she doesn't mention any particular senators as responsible, and that while she mentions a desire for "a different Congress," she doesn't mention the House she used to serve in. John Boehner's decision to insist that the Senate moved first was easy and brilliant.

*Correction: This post originally suggested that a senator represents two states.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 



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