Friendly Fire from the WSJ

by Ramesh Ponnuru

The editors of the Journal go after Senators Mike Lee and Ted Cruz for threatening to block a vote on bills to regulate guns. According to the Journal, “these GOP wizards have taken the onus off Senate Democrats and made Republicans the media’s gun-control focus. Mr. Reid is now bellowing about Republicans blocking a vote, and Democrats such as Mark Pryor (Arkansas), Mary Landrieu (Louisiana) and Mark Begich (Alaska) don’t have to declare themselves on provisions that might be unpopular at home.”

I think the Journal is probably right about the bottom line but mistaken in this argument. (Cruz is an old friend, to get the disclosure out of the way.) What I think the Journal is missing is that the filibuster puts red-state Democrats in a tough position. More of them have leeway to oppose a gun bill on motions where there’s a 50-vote threshold. Reid and Durbin, in that case, can let several of them walk away. With a 60-vote threshold, the Democrats can’t hand out as many passes. It’s true that with a 60-vote threshold red-state Democrats can say that they’re voting for a debate, not a bill; but the most intense supporters of gun rights, who they are presumably worried about crossing, will treat a vote to proceed with the bill as a vote for the bill–and will be encouraged to view it that way by Republicans and gun groups.

That said, I think there are real downsides to this maneuver. One of them is that to less committed voters, it hurts the Republican party’s reputation: They see the party blocking votes on popular ideas. (And I don’t buy the argument that a talking filibuster on guns would have the same effect on public opinion that the drone debate appears to have. People are already aware of the Second Amendment arguments on this issue, whereas most people had never focused on drone attacks on U.S. citizens in the U.S. before Senator Paul’s filibuster.) Also, the filibuster talk has put the focus on Republican divisions over tactics rather than Democratic divisions on the substance of the bill. And this debate seemed to be going pretty well for Republicans up til now.

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