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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

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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.