Frank Rich on the National Circus: The GOP Gets Shamed Out of Its Guns Filibuster

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Photo: Lynne Sladky/AP/Corbis

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the Senate background checks compromise, the leaked McConnell tapes, and Jana Winter's lonely fight.

This morning, two senators with A ratings from the NRA, the West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and the Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, announced that they've reached a new compromise on gun legislation. Have the aggrieved Newtown families, who lobbied the Senate in tandem with President Obama this week, finally achieved a breakthrough?
Even if this compromise over background checks ultimately becomes law — a very big if — it would be but a small step forward on gun-ownership restrictions. But the behind-the-scenes politics suggests that this is at the very least another post-election retreat for the GOP. Earlier this week, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, and Mitch McConnell, among others, were all loudly calling for a filibuster to stop any gun bill from reaching the Senate floor. Then some of their Republican colleagues started looking at polls — and at the television news accounts of the Newtown families pleading their case on the Hill — and realized that this filibuster would not be the crowd-pleaser that Paul’s anti-drone aria was. So the threat now seems to have been typical bluster; it looks as if there will be an up-or-down vote on whatever gun measure gets to the floor. That heavily compromised bill, devoid of restrictions on gun magazines or assault weapons, may not muster a majority in the Senate — particularly since some red-state Democrats may also vote no. And God knows what will happen in the House. But if it should get through in some form, it may prove a first step on a decades-long path to bring sane gun laws to America.

Earlier this week, Mother Jones's David Corn, the reporter who obtained the infamous "47 percent" video, got hold of another surreptitious political recording — this one captured Mitch McConnell and his aides mocking his then potential election opponent, actress Ashley Judd. McConnell has accused a liberal group of bugging his headquarters and the FBI is investigating. How damaging, if at all, will the Judd tape be to McConnell?
To McConnell, probably not damaging at all. Only a successful primary challenge from the right could derail his reelection in Kentucky. But it surely doesn’t help the GOP national brand that the Senate minority leader and his political cronies have been caught beating up on another woman, this time (according to the recording) because she dared confess in a memoir that she has battled depression. Mocking and deriding a major (and treatable) illness shared by millions of Americans is also not a political plus. As for the claim by McConnell that he was bugged in some kind of leftist “Nixonian” plot, the right hasn’t minded bugging and secret recordings when conservative partisans ambush liberal targets — e.g., James O’Keefe and Acorn. But there is no evidence that McConnell’s headquarters were bugged. A more likely scenario is that Corn's source was a witness to the proceedings, as was the case with Mitt’s “47 percent” video. What this suggests is that Republicans are so radioactive right now that it may be hard for them to convene any “private” meeting that some bartender or dissident in their own ranks won’t record and turn over to the press. Welcome to the 24/7 GOP “Candid Camera.”

In another instance of leaked materials, Fox News reporter Jana Winter may face six months in prison if she fails to reveal the source who told her about a notebook that James Holmes sent to his psychiatrist before the Aurora shootings that detailed some of his murderous intentions. Fox News has alleged that the rest of the media has given short shrift to Winter's case because of an anti-Fox bias. Do you think there's anything to this gripe? 
Let’s point out that among the complainers has been the Fox News contributor Judith Miller, of all journalistic sages. As many will recall, she's the former Times reporter who (a) peddled misleading evidence of Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction on the paper’s front page during the run-up to the Iraq War, and (b) went to jail in the Valerie Plame leak case for reasons that in retrospect had more to do with her own penchant for self-martyrdom than with protecting a source (the felon Scooter Libby), who had already released her from confidentiality. That said, Jana Winter’s First Amendment predicament should have received more attention than it has from other journalists, and more support too. That it did not may be partly owed to anti-Fox prejudice. But it also may reflect the fact that she’s covering a criminal case having nothing to do with national security, and that the leak itself is no bombshell (and may be irrelevant to Holmes’s legal fate).     

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died on Monday, unleashing a torrent of remembrances, defenses, and takedowns. Has anything about the American reaction to Thatcher's death surprised you?
It has fallen predictably along partisan lines. The right’s use of her death for another round of Reagan eulogies was so formulaic the pieces seemed to have been churned out by an algorithm. It’s worth scouring the British press for much more interesting assessments. I particularly recommend a brilliant rumination by the actor and comedian Russell Brand in the Guardian, which starts with reminiscence (“When I was a child she was just a strict woman telling everyone off and selling everything off”) and builds into a memorable mix of humor, invective, and shrewd historical analysis of both her lasting and waning legacies. What’s most revealing about Thatcher’s legacy in America, the veneration by conservative pundits aside, is that she appears to be largely forgotten. The Washington Post played her death below the fold in its print edition. On the NBC Nightly News, Meryl Streep was invoked twice (once with an actual clip from The Iron Lady) to remind viewers of who Thatcher was. In that same broadcast’s obituary package on Annette Funicello, the historical significance of The Mickey Mouse Club and Beach Blanket Bingo were givens, in no need of a celebrity booster shot from Streep or anyone else.