Paul Begala: The Price Is Right on Gun Control

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BACK WHEN I was President Clinton’s political adviser, I cited poll numbers to try to talk him out of even a tiny tax increase on the middle class, in the form of a four-cent hike in the gas tax. But the final word went to Lloyd Bentsen, Clinton’s Treasury secretary. “Mr. President,” he said, “I’m sure Paul’s polls are correct. But I never saw a fella lose his seat for voting for a four-penny gas tax.”

Bentsen was right. The modest tax increase went through. Yes, the 1994 midterms were a disaster for my Democrats. But not because of the gas tax.

Bentsen’s political observation comes to mind in the current discussion of gun control. Sure, the polls say 90 percent of Americans support expanded background checks. But have you ever seen anyone lose his or her seat for voting against gun control? I’ve seen more than I care to recall lose their seat for supporting it.

The Gingrich revolution of 1994 was fueled in part by right-wing reaction to the Brady Bill and the assault weapons ban. Jack Brooks, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee, was a fearless, cigar-chomping, old-school Texan Democrat, tougher than armadillo jerky. He warned Clinton that banning assault weapons would cost a lot of Democrats their seats. Clinton would not waver, and as he described the 1994 congressional elections in his memoir, “The NRA had a great night ... Jack Brooks had supported the NRA for years and had led the fight against the assault weapons ban in the House, but as chairman of the Judiciary Committee he had voted for the overall crime bill even after the ban was put into it. The NRA was an unforgiving master: one strike and you’re out. The gun lobby claimed to have defeated nineteen of the twenty-four members on its hit list. They did at least that much damage.”

Brooks represented one of the most conservative Southern districts in America. Yet he was reelected after he helped write the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was reelected after voting for tax increases and spending plans and taking all manner of controversial stands. But he lost his seat for voting for gun control.

That is why it has taken us 20 years to return to this issue. The fault lies not with the politicians. And it certainly does not lie with President Obama, who bravely pushed this issue far beyond the dictates of political prudence. It may not even lie with the Republicans, although 90 percent of GOP senators voted against a compromise background-check bill that was weaker than bus-stop chili. The fault lies with the voters—at least those of us who support common-sense gun safety. Those politicians don’t think they’ll get beaten for voting against gun control.

Maybe—just maybe—we are changing the political calculus. A recent spate of polls has shown that at least six senators who opposed the background-check bill have seen their approval ratings take a tumble. In her first town-hall meeting after voting to kill the background-check bill, one of those falling senators, New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte, was confronted by Erica Lafferty, the daughter of slain Sandy Hook Elementary principal Dawn Hochsprung. Lafferty politely poked a hole in the senator’s argument that she did not want to burden local gun stores, telling her, “I am just wondering why the burden of my mother being gunned down in the halls of her elementary school isn’t more important than that.” Ayotte stammered an apology for Lafferty’s loss, then, incredibly, said, “My focus has been on wanting to improve our current background-check system.” But Senator, you want to scream, that’s what the bill you killed did. It strengthened the current background-check system.

Another Republican senator who opposed expanded background checks, Jeff Flake of Arizona, attributes his low poll ratings to his vote against gun control. Until now, for politicians from conservative states, the math on guns was simple: even if only 10 percent oppose gun safety, you can guaran-damn-tee every one of them is going to vote against you. The folks who tell pollsters they’re for gun safety? Well, they may be more likely to base their vote on taxes or the deficit or party loyalty.

Personally, I’m not a single-issue voter. But if you’re really upset about the 90 percent of Republican senators who blocked a vote on a bill supported by 90 percent of Americans, then make that issue 90 percent of the basis for your vote in 2014. Because the other side is making it 100 percent of the basis for their votes.