Were four Republican senators brave?


Courage and the gun vote: Shortly after last week’s gun vote, Dana Milbank helped us see who had, and hadn’t, been courageous.

We think this sort of thing is usually fairly dumb. Your results may differ:
MILBANK (4/18/13): Courage was in short supply at the Capitol on Wednesday. The overwhelming majority of Americans favor the sort of background checks that Manchin and Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) had proposed to keep weapons from the felonious and the insane. A majority of senators supported it, too. But too many cowered in the face of fierce opposition from the National Rifle Association.


There were moments of courage on the Senate floor Wednesday. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), seriously ill with cancer, had traveled to Washington to cast his vote. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) gave an uncharacteristically moving speech explaining why he was reversing his position and would vote for a ban on military-style assault rifles (the proposal failed, 40 to 60). Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) defied most in his party to speak, and vote, in favor of the background-check measure.

Bravest of all were Manchin and Toomey, both risking their "A" ratings from the NRA to follow their consciences. "This isn't gun control, this is common sense," Toomey told his colleagues in the closing minutes of Wednesday's debate.
Pundits love to tell these stories—but were these senators brave? Was McCain brave, or has he decided that the will never run again? Was Toomey brave, or was his stance the smart political move in a blue-to-purplish state?

Did Harry Reid show courage? Or would any other approach have been politically crazy?

We don’t think the answers are always obvious. For us, it’s hard to see how Manchin wasn’t bucking the politics given the nature of his state—though we’re willing to be corrected. But when pundits start handing out badges of courage, their work often seems a bit childish:
DIONNE (4/23/13): But the vote also demonstrated for all to see a Republican Party walking in lock step behind its commanders in the gun lobby. Only four Republicans bravely defied the NRA’s fanatical opposition to a very mild measure: Toomey and Sens. Mark Kirk, John McCain and Susan Collins.

This should send a message to all who keep looking for new signs of Republican moderation.

Republicans who cultivate a reputation for reasonableness—their ranks include, among others, Sens. Johnny Isakson, Lamar Alexander, Bob Corker, Kelly Ayotte, Saxby Chambliss, Lisa Murkowski and Rob Portman—could not even vote for a watered-down proposal. This tells us that the GOP has become a coalition of the fearful. In a pinch, the party’s extreme lobbies rule.
Are Kirk (from Illinois) and Collins (from Maine) really in the same position as solons from Georgia or Tennessee? Did they “bravely” defy the odds? Or were their odds just somewhat different?

“Ardent for some desperate glory,” pundits frequently let us know who was and wasn’t courageous. In this passage, Jonathan Capehart reacts to Heidi Heitkamp’s recent votes, including her vote against Manchin-Toomey:
CAPEHART (4/22/13): Heitkamp’s response shouldn’t have been too surprising. She has an A rating from the feared National Rifle Association. She hails from a red state that went for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney over President Obama by 20 points. And she won her seat by one percentage point. Still, her comments left many Democrats to wonder if Heitkamp was a Democrat in name only. So, when the parade of Democratic senators coming out for same-sex marriage got underway, Heitkamp must have seen it as a way to prove her Democratic bona fides to the national party.

After considerable pressure from activists and the media, Heitkamp said yes to marriage equality on April 5. But she was hardly courageous. Heitkamp was the fifth of six senators to do so that week and the 52nd senator overall to support same-sex marriage. More importantly, anti-gay groups no longer have a NRA equivalent to keep politicians in line. The arguments against civil rights for lesbians and gay men as espoused by the Family Research Council have lost their power. And groups such as the National Organization for Marriage have been discredited.
To the highly punitive Capehart, Heitkamp wasn’t even “courageous” when she voted for marriage equality. Meanwhile, Capehart is shocked when a Democrat from a state which buried Obama last year doesn’t vote all the votes he would like.

To our taste, liberal pundits tend to be wasting everyone’s time when they hand out citations for bravery in the wake of such votes. By way of contrast, we will recommend Kevin Drum’s reaction to the failed gun safety vote.

We’ve been outworked by the NRA down through the years, Kevin Drum basically said. In effect, he urged a long-term fight to persuade more voters about the need for stronger laws—in part, to drive up voter intensity on our side of this fight. In truth, ten percent can beat ninety percent if the ten percent strongly care.

We will recommend Drum’s post, including its long-term graph from Gallup concerning public opinion about the need for tougher gun laws. (That said, do we still trust long-term graphs from Gallup? Discuss.) In the meantime, let’s consider one more part of Dionne’s column:
DIONNE: [Gabrielle] Giffords’s frustration echoed sentiment all across her side of the debate. In the past, Democrats who support gun safety had reacted benignly to members of their party from rural states who opposed sensible gun measures for expediency’s sake. Not this time. The response to Democrats who opposed background checks—Sens. Max Baucus, Mark Begich, Heidi Heitkamp and Mark Pryor—was indignation.
Translation: “In the past,” we liberals haven’t worked or pushed very hard on gun issues. Our team has been outworked on this topic, as on many other topics and issues.

Not unlike the city mouse, we get angry when we lose after all those indolent years.

Today, our pundits rise to call people names. Is there any topic on which these folk have been brave or courageous down through these mush-speaking years?


  1. Step 1: Register young black males and Muslims with the NRA.
    Step 2: Go on cable "news" networks and discuss how young black males and Muslims are joining the NRA in droves.
    Step 3: Sit back and watch "post-racial America" do it's thing.


    1. America's "post-racial thing" is to infer that other people are racist.

    2. As soon as I drop my whole "paying attention" schtick, I promise to agree, Cecilia.


    3. Right after you drop the chutzpadik schtick.

    4. I'm telling you that if the people of this nation saw young black males and Muslims calling for gun rights as loud and as incessantly as the NRA, they'd have a much bigger problem with gun rights. If you don't agree, can you explain why?

      BTW, this is a nation where Presidential candidates go on and on about "small town", "heartland" values in their speeches, even though the majority of Americans (around 90% or so) live in urban and suburban areas. Do you really think those politicians don't mean "white"? If not, why not.


    5. I think if conservatives saw Muslims and African-Americans calling for gun rights we'd be in heaven over the possibility of a broader constituency.

      Believe it or not, it generally isn't scoff-laws who get involved in the political process.

      Arguing for traditional gun rights indicates a certain solidity to our ears. It suggests you own property...that you're invested in your community...that you show a certain determination to take care of you and yours, etc.

      I know you have the idea that we'd be packing up our hooded robes and heading for the hollows, but that's just a stereotype.

      As for references to the "heartland" and "small towns", they've been used forever to suggest saintly country folk with old fashioned common sense, plain-speaking, and traditional morals. None of those high fallutin city slickers, mind you, whose priorities and sensibilities revolve around the latest trend outta Hollywood or psycho-babble self-help book.

      This stuff is a caricature, utterly subjective, and more than a little ludicrous. It's also a hell of lot gentler and less pejorative about one's fellow countrymen than the stuff that seems to be simmering in your head.

    6. Forgot to ask you about the blame for the 2008 economic crash being laid at the feet of the Community Redevelopment Act. Now, i get that this is the old Limbaugh three-card monty trick, blaming others when its caused by your constituents (in this case, epic fraud on the part of financial institutions). But why the CRA, as opposed to say sun spots, if one is just pulling shit out of their ass?
      If you aren't sure where i'm going with this, isn't this just another case of "when the shit goes down, blame brown"?


    7. You said it, Berto! It's pretty darn easy to be color blind when your color's got all the green. I'm sure forty acres and a mule will come up in the next session, though.

    8. Were they blaming "brown" or were they blaming the unintended consequences of the govt offsetting what should the natural risk involved in loaning money?

    9. The CRA had nothing to do with the 2008 economic crash. So your question is, "were they racist or just stupid?'
      Lots of other nonsense could have been blamed (sun spots?), but for some reason this one caught on. Care to venture a guess why?


    10. I'll take "stupid".

      1. Because that's the least pejorative assessment that you're capable of giving.

      2. I'm AM stupid for blithely taking at a face value a scenario that YOU framed.

    11. Yeah. When it comes to economics, conservatives have a 40-year track record which almost assures it.

  2. Bob Somerby:

    You write

    "“In the past,” we liberals haven’t worked or pushed very hard on gun issues."

    While I don't contradict your argument that liberals haven't done what's necessary to advance our agenda, I don't quite get what makes "gun issues" something that liberals should work or push hard for.

    What exactly is ideologically liberal about incrementally restricting individuals' access to firearms? What's ideologically liberal about gun prohibition itself?

    I can easily understand bank regulation, pollution regulation, worker safety regulation, anti-discrimination regulation, anti-monopoly regulation, consumer safety regulation --in short, the liberal ideological purpose behind using the power of the state to protect ordinary individuals from corporate or aristocratic abuses. That would be liberal. Anyone can see that this sort of agenda fits right in with what the characters in "It's a Wonderful Life" would advocate.

    Movement liberalism is all about those sorts of checks and balances on powerful interests. Ordinary people have more power over the agents that confront us in our daily lives when the government steps up to level the playing field.

    But what exactly about gun prohibition has anything to do with all of that? Mind you, try to answer that question without sounding like the right-wing's "without security, all other rights don't exist" sloganeering. Movement liberals rightly reject that sort of demagoguery and fear-mongering when it comes to civil liberties, so we can't trot that out when we need to justify our own agenda...if we're intellectually honest, that is.

    Movement liberalism is all about expanding rights by recognizing --unlike the libertarian right-- that the government best protects our rights when Americans recognize that threats to our fundamental freedoms emanate from powerful private interests, as well as a potentially tyrannical state.

    So, once again, Bob Somerby, help a fellow liberal out, here: what exactly is ideologically liberal about "gun issues"? Apart from being something in which the partisan Democratic apparatus (and billionaire philanthropist Mayors) invests, why are we so concerned about the dangers posed by ordinary individuals, instead of focusing on what FDR correctly named as "the old enemies of peace"?

    From my perspective as a movement liberal, I don't really care about "gun control," I care about "bank control."

    Thanks so much in advance for answering these questions, Bob Somereby, I look forward to contributing to your work, regardless of my level of agreement with whatever answer you might be able to provide.

    1. Sorry, "Bob Somerby", please forgive my crack team of proofreaders for their obvious lapses, LOL.

    2. stuart -- libertarian Glenn Reynolds' column in USA Today is in line with your observations. The title is "More guns and gay marriage". Reynolds says:

      the common thread in the big social movements that have succeeded over the past half-century, from civil rights, to gay rights, to gun rights, is that they have all been seen as pro-freedom


    3. David in Cal:

      Glenn Reynolds? "libertarian?"


      While it is true that there can be common ground between the movement right and left (in opposition to the technocratic/elite center) on the entire Bill of Rights, and that concurrence on individual rights is a large part of that potential, Reynolds has proven to be quite intellectually dishonest, as Glenn Greenwald ably noted years ago:

      "Reynolds long ago used to emphasize the libertarian aspects of his belief system, by, for instance, writing for Reason Magazine. But this weekend, he attacked Reason's Dave Weigel for criticizing publication of the home address of the NYT photographer so that Reynolds could justify and defend the actions of Michelle Malkin, David Horowitz and Rocco DiPippo with regard to the Travel Section murder plot. That is a clear reflection of what Reynolds is -- he has long ago dispensed with his libertarianism beyond the most cursory and decorative uses, and he has no meaningful differences with the most extreme elements of the Republican Malkin/Coulter right wing.

      Reynolds' transformation is illustrative of a broader and much more significant dynamic. There are no more vibrant libertarian components left of the Bush movement. Libertarians (in the small "l" sense of that word) have either abandoned the Bush-led Republicans based on the recognition -- catalyzed by the Schiavo travesty -- that there are no movements more antithetical to a restrained government than an unchecked Republican Party in its current composition. Or, like Reynolds, they have relinquished their libertarian impulses and beliefs completely as the price for being embraced as a full-fledged, unfailingly loyal member of the Bush-led Republican Party.


    4. (continued)

      "Despite the bespectacled professorial costumes of respectability and moderation, Reynolds ceased being different than the Michelle Malkins and David Horowitzs of the world some time ago. That is the camp he has chosen, and any residual doubts about that ought to be resolved by the fact that he will always find ways to defend them even when it comes to blatant garbage like the treason accusations against the NYT and the subsequent, home-address-publishing right-wing lynch mobs which they foreseeably inspired.

      The current Republican Party has become the party of the Michelle Malkins, Ann Coulters, James Dobsons, and David Horowitzs -- people who scorn libertarian principles and could not be any more hostile to them. Arguably, there are few conflicts more critical to national electoral battles than this one. As Cato Institute's Brink Lindsey recently observed: "libertarians are in the center of the American political debate as it is currently framed." But nothing has undermined libertarian principles more than Republican rule of the last five years.

      For this reason, intellectually honest believers in liberty and restrained government have chosen to abandon the Republican Party because it is devoted to an endlessly intrusive, unrestrained and even lawless government, precepts which could not be any more antithetical to core libertarian principles. But there is a sizeable group of individuals, empitomized by Reynolds, who claimed adherence to libertarianism but who have now fully embraced the most extremist elements of the Bush movement and the Republican Party. In doing so, they have rendered their claimed libertarianism nothing but a hollow symbol, to be trotted out -- when at all -- purely as a manipulative instrument to maintain an image of rationality and moderation ("Extremist? Me? I'm for gay marriage").

      That is the choice which national political figures with some degree of libertarian impulses, such as John McCain and Rudy Guiliani, are confronting. With Reynolds -- again and again -- invoking the most frivolous rationale imaginable in order to side with the most crazed schemes of Malkin, StopTheACLU and Horowitz (what's the difference, he bewilderingly asks, between publishing someone's e-mail address and their home address?), it's long past time to stop pretending that he is anything other than one of them.

      from "Unclaimed Territory" FRIDAY, JULY 07, 2006: http://glenngreenwald.blogspot.com/2006/07/libertarians-and-republican-party.html

      Really, what sort of libertarian is ideologically on board with neoconservative lunacy? Well...the question pretty much answers itself when asked this way http://daveweigel.com/2005/12/is-glenn-reynolds-a-libertarian/ :

      "..it’s a curious libertarian who sees Democrats opposing broad licence for the executive to spy on American citizens and thinks, “how can this help Republicans win some more elections?”"

      A "libertarian" who's really a partisan GOP hack?

    5. That's it? All those paragraphs and Greenwald (who I like) cites one instance where Reynolds sided with the sort of mob histrionic reaction that also caused the Journal News, after Newtown, to publish info about local citizens who own guns? Or Occupy Wallstreet folks holding protests in front of executive's homes.

      I'm not defending Malkin here, she's done that bullshit before.

      I wouldn't place Glenn Reynolds with the Cato folks either, but as usual Greenwald pushes back with a characterization that makes Republicans sound like two degrees from Mussolini.

      Come on, folks. Get a grip.

  3. According to a USA Today poll, backing for a new gun control law has slipped below 50%. By 49%-45%, those surveyed favor Congress passing a new gun-control law.


    I don't know how to reconcile this figure with the poll cited by the President, which showed 90% in favor of stronger background checks.

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