How stupid does the Senate background-check vote look now, I ask the pundits and others who thought it was dumb politics for Obama and the Democrats to push for a vote that they obviously knew they were going to lose. I’d say not very stupid at all. The nosedive taken in the polls by a number of senators who voted against the bill, most of them in red states, makes public sentiment here crystal clear. And now, for the first time since arguably right after the Reagan assassination attempt—a damn long time, in other words—legislators in Washington are feeling political heat on guns that isn’t coming from the NRA. This bill will come back to the Senate, maybe before the August recess, and it already seems possible and maybe even likely to have 60 votes next time.
You’ve seen the poll results showing at least five senators who voted against the Manchin-Toomey bill losing significant support. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire is the only one of the five from a blue state, so it’s probably not surprising that she lost the most, 15 points. But Lisa Murkowski in Alaska lost about as much in net terms. Alaska’s other senator, Democrat Mark Begich, lost about half that. Republicans Rob Portman of Ohio and Jeff Flake of Arizona also tumbled.
Egad. Could it possibly be that those pre-vote polls of all these states by Mayor Bloomberg’s group were ... right? All the clever people pooh-poohed them, because, well, they were done by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and because it just seemed impossible that 70 percent of people from a red state could support the bill. But the polls were evidently right, or at least a lot closer to right than the brilliant minds who laughed at Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey and Harry Reid.
Something remarkable is happening here. Now, the pressure is on the other side. It’s on the NRA—gathering this Friday and Saturday, incidentally, for its annual convention, its first annual convention since Newtown. I think you’ll agree with me that the group has put a tremendous amount of thought into how to change its image, do a little outreach, present a picture of itself that will confound its critics. Or not: Sarah Palin will open the meeting, and Glenn Beck will close it. The list of eight political speakers—current and former elected officials plus John Bolton—features not a single Democrat. They’re really battening down the hatches.
And they are going to lose. I talked with a couple of knowledgeable sources about what’s going on now. Five Republicans, I’m told, have expressed some degree of interest in the bill: Ayotte, who would appear be a near-certainty to switch her vote; Flake, also a likely; Murkowski; Dean Heller of Nevada; and Bob Corker of Tennessee. Tennessee seems like a tough state to be from when casting such a vote as a Republican, but Corker is someone who at least tries once in a while to have conversations with Democrats.
On the Democratic side, as you’ll recall, four Democrats voted against Manchin-Toomey: Begich, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Max Baucus of Montana. I’m told that Begich would like to switch, just needs to figure out how he can get there. Heitkamp is a bigger question mark. Pryor is probably lost.
That leaves Baucus. Shortly after the last vote, he announced he was retiring. That ought to mean that he should feel free enough to vote for the bill this time. It’s hard to know what Baucus actually believes—if that matters. He has a solid NRA career rating, but he’s cast enough votes the other way (supporting the assault weapons ban and the Brady waiting period) to make the other side suspicious. Before he announced he was quitting, the NRA was running ads against him.
What he believes may matter less than how he wants to spend his Senate afterlife. If he wants to stay in Washington and make money, he’ll be more likely to vote for Manchin-Toomey, because he’ll be dependent to some extent on Democratic money networks that were furious with him after the vote. If he just wants to move back to Montana, who knows.
That’s eight potential switches, where six are needed. One of those six, remember, is sure to be Harry Reid. He cast a procedural no vote because only senators who vote against a bill can bring it to the floor again, but obviously, if it is going to pass, he'll vote for it. Even so getting to 60 will still be a heavy lift. And then there’s the House. So certain matters remain unclear.
But some things are quite clear. Manchin and Toomey deserve great credit for sticking with this. Democrat Kay Hagan of North Carolina, also up for reelection next year but a supporter of the bill, is every bit as at risk as Pryor and Begich are, and she makes them look like cowards. And clearest of all is the fact that, far from that vote being some kind of devastating blow to Obama or the Democratic Party, it accomplished a lot. It pulled a few bricks loose from the wall. Next time, that wall just might crumble.