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If Progressive Groups Want to Win Battles Like McAuliffe’s Gun Deal, They’ll Have to Show They Can Inflict Political Pain


Over and over again, we’ve seen Republican candidates and elected officials cowering before – and caving to – the most extreme agendas of their “base” on a whole host of issues. Examples? Here are just a few.

  • On energy and environmental issues, they simply deny there’s any problem (e.g., climate science denial) and do the bidding of the fossil fuel and other resource extractive interests, who have enormous financial resources and have shown they are willing to spend them to achieve what they want.
  • On guns, they have consistently sided with the vocal, organized 10%-20% of the American public who oppose things like universal background checks on gun purchases, while catering to every whim of the deep-pocketed, politically relentless gun lobby.
  • On economic policy, they cater on issue after issue to the top 1% (or more accurately, 0.1%) – their donors, in other words – while flipping the bird to the remaining 99% of Americans.
  • On immigration policy, they repeatedly have retreated from the obvious answer – comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to earned citizenship – in the face of virulent opposition from their xenophobic, bigoted base.
  • Here in Virginia, we’ve seen Republicans irrationally oppose Medicaid expansion, overwhelmingly because they are terrified of being attacked by their Fox “News”-brainwashed base and/or primaried from their right (e.g., by a “Tea Party” candidate).

Why are Republican candidates and elected officials afraid of far-right-wing and other nasty forces (e.g., the fossil fuel industry)? Simple: they know that if they don’t do what those folks want, they will feel significant political pain, whether in the form of loss of $$$ or even worse, in a primary from their right (and note, unlike on the Democratic side, there have been many successful and/or expensive primaries of Republican incumbents — ask Eric Cantor what he thinks, and also ask yourself if you don’t think every single Republican elected official in this country didn’t take note of Cantor’s defeat by bat****-crazy Tea Partier Dave Brat!). Also note that the ONLY way most incumbents stand a serious chance of losing their seats these days, thanks to partisan gerrymandering, is in a party caucus, convention or primary. So that’s what they’re worried about.

All of which brings me to the recent, crushing defeat of gun violence prevention groups here in Virginia, with Gov. McAuliffe’s signing yesterday of legislation comprising his utterly non-“historic” backroom gun deal with the NRA (negotiated by NRA “A”-rated Brian Moran, among others, with zero input from gun violence prevention groups). In response, gun violence prevention groups issued statements decrying the deal, with varying levels of outrage.

The problem is that those statements were missing one absolutely essential component of being a serious, effective political player: a credible promise that they will inflict serious political pain on anyone and everyone who negotiated and/or signed this deal. Without that, the gun violence prevention folks can talk all they want about making lemonade out of lemons, or how they thought Gov. McAuliffe was their “friend” (seriously?!?) but it won’t lead to a change in calculus by their enemies, other than to respect them even LESS than they already do. The answer is for the gun violence prevention groups to pick someone who negotiated or voted for this deal and to defeat them in their next election. If not, then they’ll simply show themselves to be political paper tigers, ones that can be safely ignored, even by their supposed “friends.” The bottom line is they MUST, at the minimum, send the message: “DO NOT F*** WITH US, WE CAN AND WILL COME AFTER YOU!”

By the way, the point here wasn’t to pick on the gun violence prevention groups per se. First of all, I am strongly on their side in terms of what they’re fighting for. Second, I like a lot of them personally. Third, this is NOT just about one particular progressive or environmental interest group; this is about power/hardball politics, Machiavelli (“it is far safer to be feared than loved”), etc. And that means if progressive and environmental groups want to be taken seriously – feared, even! – by Democrats like Terry McAuliffe, they will have to show the McAuliffes of the world they’ve got some serious political “juice.” And again, that means demonstrating ability to inflict crushing political defeats at the polls to those who cross them. Until then, something tells me we’re going to see a lot more situations like this gun deal with the NRA, or Gov. McAuliffe’s support for offshore oil drilling and new natural gas pipelines (screwing over the environmental groups who supported him in 2013 and supported his attempt to take back the State Senate in 2015). And no, this really isn’t rocket science…or brain surgery, before Ben Carson ruined that expression for all time. Heh.

P.S. Just to emphasize a point to progressive and enviro groups: you can play as nice as you want, try to make friends, whatever, but your enemies are ruthless, relentless, and they know how to play hardball and play to WIN. Can you do the same? If not, be prepared for a lot more losses in the future.

  • Andy Schmookler

    Your point is very well taken, Lowell.

    First, a question: you write here about why someone like Terry McAullife might not be afraid to make this bad gun real, but what was in it for him to make this agreement, undercutting Herring and outraging so many who helped him win the governorship.

    Second, a point: we should indeed flex muscle when we can to get “our” people to do the right thing. But we should not get crazy about it, like so many on the right have, by failing to take into account realities that we might not like. (E.g. the anger of the R base that they couldn’t get rid of Obamacare, when their guys simply lacked the power to do so.)

    And third, another point. Your point about the need to be able and willing to inflict pain to punish leaders like McAullife for failure to work for the right goals goes together with the more general failure of the liberal side to compel its leaders to inflict political pain on the Republicans for the terrible things they do.

    And of course right now we liberals should be doing everything we can to punish the Republicans — and compel our leaders to do so — for their unprecedented stonewalling on any nominee the President might make to the Supreme Court.

    (I received a mass email from Sen. Warren today that included this about the Republican Senators’ power play on the Supreme Court vacancy: “This is extreme, irresponsible, and an insult to the U.S. Constitution that all of us senators took an oath to uphold. But none of that will make Senate Republicans change their minds and do the right thing. The only way they’ll come around is if there’s a big
    enough outcry from their constituents. That’s why MoveOn is so crucial in this moment—to supercharge a grassroots uprising and make extreme obstructionism a political disaster for the GOP.)

    • “what was in it for him to make this agreement, undercutting Herring and outraging so many who helped him win the governorship.” He can claim a “historic,” “bipartsan” accomplishment for his legacy and when he hits the campaign trail for Hillary Clinton, among other things.

  • GBrandon

    It isn’t in the nature of most Democrats to be one-issue voters. Gun violence prevention people, in order to flex their/our muscles, must create organized coalitions with our favorite environmental groups. There is probably a lot of overlap in membership between the two groups. I would add our Democrats who advocate strongly for the disadvantaged whether they be economically challenged, health-care challenged, educationally challenged, workplace challenged, etc should also coalesce.

    While the Democratic Party has been the big tent for all of these interest groups, we’ve seen that the party and “electeds” leadership are too centrist to respect the fractured nature of actual true-blue Democratic groups. There are some Democrats who are leaders in these some of these interest groups who laugh in your face when asked to join local Democratic committees. And, I completely understand their reaction.

    • GBrandon

      BTW, I’m suggesting more of a 501(C)4 or PAC as the vehicle to coalesce around. No need to replace the Democratic Party.

  • GBrandon

    Great point; nothing can be done so we’ll just muddle through.

    • Well, sure, we usually do end up muddling through, but that wasn’t my point. I’m just speaking from watching this over many years. As much as I’d love it if progressive groups could work together effectively, it’s hard to think of examples where that’s actually happened. Can you give me a few?

      • GBrandon

        In some respects, national organizations that have state-based chapters can be considered a form of coalition; so that would include Sierra Club, NARAL and Planned Parenthood. I would argue that trade unions are another form of coalition through their “locals” and, of course, the the AFL-CIO and its “allied groups” (http://www.aflcio.org/About). The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has “coalition” in its name and has sixty members, some if which are themselves coalitions (http://campaigntostopgunviolence.org/members.html).

        The above coalitions donate to the Democratic Party and to individual Democratic candidates either at their national level or state levels. As you know, it takes money to elect Democrats.

        On the other side, need I mention the American Legislative Exchange Council?

        • Right, now a progressive counterpart to ALEC would be interesting. Also, in general, Dems need – but have almost completely failed – to build up progressive infrastructure of all kinds at the state and local levels. For whatever reason, Republicans “get” this – just as they “get” the importance of inflicting political pain if you cross them – while Dems…not so much.

  • Joe Mancini

    McAuliffe’s name is mud now, his campaigning for Hillary might be worth something in other states, but I doubt it will carry any weight around here. The main thing TMac did, and it makes no sense to me, is to demoralize the people who voted for the ticket in 2013, and eliminate any chance of national gun-safety groups (e.g., Everytown) that pumped $2.4M helping him to get elected in 2013, showing up in 2017 after getting shined on.

    Get ready for Governor Gillespie, AG Obenshain, and whomever they run for LtGov. I can see the ads now, “Mark Herring, so radical even his own Governor threw him under the bus.”

    A sad day for the DPVA, one among many.