Senate Democrats Wise to Block Background Checks

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Scaredy-cats? Or SMARTY-cats?
Scaredy-cats? Or SMARTY-cats? Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The day after the Senate majority filibustered background checks, liberal rage has turned on a handful of red statesSenators who joined the Republican minority. No less a hard-headed politician than Barack Obama is likewise furious, reportedly “as irritated at the four members of his own party as he was at the 90 percent of Republicans who defeated the bill.” They’re “cowardly,” insists Michael Tomasky. “Cowardice,” says Greg Sargent.

Cowardice? Really? Cowardice isn’t just being afraid of anything. Declining to climb into a car driven by a puking drunk isn’t cowardly. Cowardice is being unduly afraid. And in this case, the Democrats have something real to fear: losing an election in a state that leans pretty heavily Republican.

Being in a position like that requires choices. You’re not going to win reelection in Arkansas by compiling a Chuck Schumer–esque voting record. You need to pick your battles. Red state Democrats need to cast votes against their party sometimes, or else they’ll be replaced by somebody who will vote against it all the time. That is a moral argument, and while it can be taken too far, the Senators in question are not taking a terribly unreasonable stance. As Politico reports, one Senator told the administration, “Guns, gays and immigration — it’s too much. I can be with you on one or two of them, but not all three.””

If you’re picking your battles, background checks are as good an issue as any to lay down. For one thing, as I’ve suggested, guns loom disproportionately large in the political world of red state Democrats. Guns are the way they signal home state cultural affinity, giving themselves a chance to get their economic message heard. Their A rating from the National Rifle Association is powerful shorthand. And yes, the NRA is crazy and partisan, and was opposing a bill it used to support and that most Republicans support. But none of those facts overcomes the blunt reality of the A rating’s political value.

What’s more, this particular gun vote was an especially good time for Democrats to defect. None of them cast the deciding vote; it fell six votes shy of defeating a filibuster. The bill was already a compromise of a compromise, something that would have stopped a tiny fraction of gun crimes. Even if it passed the Senate, it faced steep odds of passing the House, where it probably would have died, been weakened further, or even turned into a law that weakened existing gun laws.

The background check law’s failure is maddening not because passing it would have made an enormous difference, but for the opposite reason: it is such a tiny, obviously sensible step. The tininess of the step, in comparison with its disproportionate political symbolism, is why it was a perfect case for red state Democrats to defect.

Red state Democrats were being asked to assume a large political risk for a small and quite likely nonexistent policy gain. If I were one of them, I’d have voted no, too.