Politics & Policy

The NRA Convention as a 2012 Cattle Call

Leading GOP figures addressed the gun-rights organization's high-profile meeting.

Charlotte, N.C. — The 2012 presidential election wasn’t high on the minds of the NRA convention’s organizers, or of most of the attendees. But mainstream-media voices declared that the speaker lineup “looks like the conservative roundup for the 2012 GOP primaries,” and it’s hard to imagine a Republican winning the party’s nomination without a reasonably solid record on protecting the Second Amendment. Whenever a large, geographically diverse group of conservatives congregates, those who hope to carry the conservative banner will appear.

So, indulging the media’s obsession with presidential races for a moment, how did the big names do in Charlotte?

Gov. Haley Barbour, Mississippi: Barbour was the convention’s leadoff speaker. Perhaps more than anyone who followed, Barbour stepped into the role of a leader of an immediate political crusade; he noted that “the political environment for conservatives and Republicans in spring of 2010 is better than it was in 1994. That’s just a fact. . . . We can’t wait for 2012 to start taking our country back.” Emphasizing that he didn’t want the discussion diverted to presidential buzz, Barbour quoted FedEx CEO Fred Smith that “the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing,” and explained that for gun owners and conservatives, the 2010 elections remain the main thing. “The most powerful weapon in American politics is when you say to someone who respects you, ‘I’m voting for this candidate.’ It’s more powerful than any TV ad or anything that comes in the mail.”

Barbour is a respected governor, and he managed to bring his state through Katrina without the breakdown and chaos that marked neighboring Louisiana. As head of the Republican Governors Association, he could have another major feather in his cap if we see significant GOP wins in governors’ races this fall. (Unlike his friends coordinating House and Senate campaigns, Barbour’s candidates can’t run against Washington.)

But the NRA’s Chris Cox followed Barbour’s speech with “thank you for those remarks, and thank you for that accent,” hitting on an unfair but unavoidable obstacle for Barbour: He looks and sounds like a caricature of a deep-South politician, and the optics of a white, hefty, middle-aged Mississippian running against the reelection bid of the first African-American president will be an obstacle, to say the least.

Sen. John Thune, South Dakota: The optics for Thune are the opposite; the man who ended the Senate career of Tom Daschle is tall, tan, and out of central casting for a crusading senator. But Thune is surprisingly soft-spoken, and his remarks took the unusual tack of denouncing an anti-gun president, an anti-gun speaker of the House, and liberal domination of most of Washington, and then listing recent victories for gun owners in Congress, all under that same liberal domination.

His opening remarks were classically conservative, and delivered in the tone one would expect from a presidential candidate: “We face a choice of more government and less freedom or less government and more freedom. . . . Right now, the prevailing vision in Washington is of government — more and more government.” But soon he was noting that the Senate had recently seen 62 votes to ensure the District of Columbia complied with the Heller decision on gun rights, 67 votes to ensure the right to carry firearms in national parks, and 68 votes for a provision that allows Amtrak passengers to carry unloaded and locked handguns in checked baggage. The incongruent themes — our liberties are endangered, but we’ve been winning a lot lately — made for a less-than-perfectly smooth speech, but there’s no doubt that Thune enjoyed warm relations with the audience and would be a likeable, if understated, contender if he threw his hat in the ring.

Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin: Palin was the headline act, and helped to ensure an entirely different level of attention and media scrutiny for the convention. But despite the fact that she is the figure most widely perceived to be a likely 2012 contender, Palin offered an address that clearly was not aimed at building presidential buzz.

This audience was perhaps the most friendly she will find. “I told the tech guys, no need to fire up the teleprompter,” she said. “I’ve got everything I need on the palm of my hand. It says, ‘I am the NRA!’” She noted that her status as the only NRA member on either ticket in 2008 “didn’t sit very well with the delicate little ladies and gentlemen in the lamestream media, and they didn’t know what to make of it.”

She lamented an interview from the presidential campaign where a (strangely unnamed) network played footage of a shooting victim being carried on a stretcher during her answer on whether gun violence was a health issue. She criticized the media for giving excessive attention to shooting sprees but almost none to the use of firearms by law-abiding citizens in self-defense. She hit celebrities who promote gun control while employing personal bodyguards with concealed weapons and living in gated communities with armed guards, punctuating her point with, “Arrgh! Hypocrites, arrgh!”

She focused on “attacks on our hunting and sustenance lifestyle,” pointing out that, “in Alaska, we eat; therefore, we hunt.” She mocked the animal-rights groups that criticized the president for swatting a fly, and jabbed at urban elites who recoil at hunting but enjoy what is hunted: “Do they think their venison came from a deer that died of natural causes?”

A bit more than three minutes of her 25-minute speech comprised an extended riff on all of the “you might be a redneck” jokes that apply to her life: “if directions to your house include, ‘turn off the paved road’”; “if your best shoes have steel toes”; “if your honeymoon included hunting”; “if you’ve served Thanksgiving dinner on a ping-pong table”; “if you’ve used a fishing license as a form of ID.”

For convention attendees, media bias, predator control, and hunting rights are indeed on the radar screen right now. But there were a few, perhaps more pressing, issues that went unmentioned: a recent push for “no-fly, no buy” legislation that would deny anyone listed on the federal “no-fly” list from purchasing a firearm; Obama-administration officials’ expressing a desire to reestablish the Clinton assault-weapons ban; and efforts to legalize concealed carry in the states that still ban or severely restrict it. Palin’s talk focused on the gun issues that were on her mind, and while the crowd enjoyed her speech immensely, it was not quite the rallying cry of a 2012 candidate.

Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana: He was the next-to-last big-name speaker, and while he joked that his following Sarah Palin was like having R2-D2 follow Luke Skywalker, he most effectively matched the call for a broad conservative agenda to the audience before him.

The NRA cherishes having friends on both sides of the aisle, and prefers a pro-gun Democrat over a Republican who wavers; it bristles at the accusation that it’s essentially a GOP organization. But Pence came close to arguing that while there is currently a pro-gun majority in Congress, this November, Americans can elect a pro-gun conservative majority: “We Republicans didn’t just lose our majorities, we lost our way. I knew that if we kept acting like big-government liberals, the American people would eventually go with the professionals. . . . I’m here to tell my friends at the NRA, from the floor of the House of Representatives, after fighting against that failed stimulus plan, after fighting against that runaway budget, and after opposing that government takeover of health care, my party, Republicans in Congress, are back in the fight, and we’re back in the fight on the right!”

Pence may have even forced the NRA’s hand on whether or not to score the Senate vote on Elena Kagan when it grades the current crop of senators. (The NRA scored the vote on Sonia Sotomayor, but it was the first time they had scored a vote on a Supreme Court justice.) If scored, the Kagan vote will knock down the grades of usually reliable Democrats such as Harry Reid of Nevada.

While various speakers made brief references to the Supreme Court, Pence went after her directly: “In 1987, the Supreme Court was asked to take a case involving a D.C. man who had been convicted of carrying an unlicensed pistol. A lower court ruled that the Second Amendment applied to militias and not to individual gun rights. When the man appealed to the high court, Elena Kagan, then a clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall, urged Justice Marshall to vote against hearing the case. In her comment to the justice, Kagan wrote that the D.C. man’s ‘sole contention is that the District of Columbia’s firearms statutes violate his constitutional right to keep and bear arms.’ To which she responded and concluded, ‘I’m not sympathetic.’ Sympathy for the express language of the Bill of Rights should be a prerequisite of service on the highest court in the land!” Pence’s roared final line got a sustained standing ovation; good luck to the NRA official who has to explain to the membership that the group will score the Sotomayor vote but not the one for Kagan.

Other sections from Pence’s address sound like they will work in Iowa and New Hampshire in late 2011: “America is changing, and she is not changing for the better. A nation conceived in liberty has come of age in bondage to big government. We’ve lost respect in the world. We’re going broke. And our social and cultural fabric is unraveling. It was written long ago that, ‘without a vision, the people perish.’ In the face of failure of leadership at the national level, the people of this country long for a vision for a better America, that will return our national government to the common sense and common values of everyday Americans. A compelling vision, grounded in the timeless principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America.”

Pence may not intend to sound like a candidate, but he’s laying out a good theme for the 2012 Republican challenger. He even has a classic anecdote, recounting a meeting with a laid-off constituent in Newcastle, Ind., in late 2008 who thanked him for voting against the Wall Street bailout. After Pence expressed sympathy for the layoff, the constituent responded, “I can get another job; I can’t get another country.”

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich: Most of the speakers addressed the NRA members Friday afternoon, but Gingrich headlined the NRA’s Saturday-night event.

Like Pence, Newt wasn’t hesitant about addressing Elena Kagan, and he couldn’t have been more blunt: “For a potential Supreme Court nominee to attempt to bar military recruiters from campus during a time of war, she should be disqualified from the very beginning. . . . Mr. President, you’re entitled to nominate a liberal. But can’t you nominate a liberal who respects and works for our military, not someone who has contempt for them and opposes them?”

But the rest of the speech was classic Newt, hitting on all of his favorite topics, the American Revolution, Reagan’s leadership during the Cold War, the folly of the academic Left, campaign-finance reform’s trampling of the First Amendment, and the Obama administration’s development as a “a secular, socialist regime.” He closed by assigning the NRA members before him the duty of recruiting Constitution-minded challengers at every level and taking back the country.

Gingrich has always cut a polarizing, unpredictable figure, from his days as speaker to his much-maligned decision to back Dede Scozzafava to the very end in last year’s special election in upstate New York. He shared the stage with Glenn Beck, and the two seemed a strangely fitting match: Both are passionately loved and hated, fascinated with history, and capable of following ingenious remarks with wildly controversial statements that distract from their intended point.

And as passionate as each figure’s fans are, Newt’s path to the presidency would be almost as difficult as Beck’s.

– Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot on NRO.

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