Say what you will about Bill Clinton’s morals and ideology — and there’s plenty negative to say — but few would argue he wasn’t one of the sharpest politicians of his generation.
He proved that once again in a speech before Democratic donors on Saturday. In it, he warned of “trivializing” the strong beliefs of gun owners.
“You have the power to really democratize America,” Clinton said. “You can do it on immigration reform, you can do it on these economic issues. You can do it on implementing the health care bill.”
But, Clinton warned, the issue of guns has a special emotional resonance in many rural states — and simply dismissing pro-gun arguments is counterproductive.
While some polls show that the public by-and-large supports several proposals for increased gun control, Clinton said that it’s not the public support that matters — it’s how strongly people feel about the issue.
“All these polls that you see saying the public is for us on all these issues — they are meaningless if they’re not voting issues,” Clinton said.
Clinton recalled Al Gore’s 2000 campaign against George W. Bush in Colorado, where a referendum designed to close the so-called gun show loophole shared the ballot with the presidential ticket. Gore publicly backed the proposal, while Bush opposed it.
Though the referendum passed with 70 percent of the vote, Gore lost the state. Clinton said that the reason was because a good chunk of the referendum’s opponents were single-issue voters who automatically rejected Gore as anti-gun.
And Clinton said that passing the 1994 federal assault weapons ban “devastated” more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers in the 1994 midterms — and cost then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley (D-Wash.) his job and his seat in Congress.
There are probably more single issue gun voters out there than any other issue, including abortion. But a big difference today compared to 1994 is that congressional districts have been gerrymandered to the point that the overwhelming majority of House members from both parties are now fairly safe. The number of competitive districts has fallen dramatically as the tools used to draw district lines have become more sophisticated and precise.
But if there is one issue that can cut through party and even ideology, it is gun control and the passions that are raised when government feels it has the power to infringe on the rights of gun owners. Even “safe” Democratic Congressmen — defined as winning by 10 points or more in the previous election — might find themselves challenged by well financed Republicans who, in an off year election, would negate the Democrat’s turnout advantage. In the south, Democrats who vote for an assault weapons ban may even by challenged from the right in a primary.
Closing his remarks, Clinton seemed to be urging Democratic lawmakers to vote against the president:
Clinton closed his remarks with a warning to big Democratic donors that ultimately many Democratic lawmakers will be defeated if they choose to stand with the president.
“Do not be self-congratulatory about how brave you for being for this” gun control push, he said. “The only brave people are the people who are going to lose their jobs if they vote with you.”
So much for “standing with the president.”