Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Gun Control, or How Hillary Got Her Groove Back

Only the most flagrant of partisans could look at the past 72 hours and not acknowledge that Hillary Clinton has had a bit of an upswing.  The former Secretary of State aced her appearance on Saturday Night Live, something that she admittedly should be able to do (she's been in the public sphere for decades and has given speeches for almost all of that time), but politicians frequently realize they have absolutely no ability to tell jokes at the worst possible moments, and she was genuinely funny (albeit the comedy might have been a bit toothless, as we clearly saw who Lorne Michaels is rooting for in this election with no mention of emails or Bernie Sanders).  She had an ace moment in an interview with Savannah Guthrie, pulling out perhaps the most critical mistake Rep. Kevin McCarthy will make in his quest to become Speaker (when he pointed out that the Benghazi committee has helped take Clinton down in the polls).  This is something that's going to come back to haunt the GOP, as Hillary Clinton is someone who works well when she's fighting against someone, and Democrats are sensitive to their chosen candidates getting unjustly railroaded after seven years of the Obama administration.  Even if there might have been validity in the attacks on Benghazi (I don't feel there were, others disagree), that ship has sailed now, and one wonders if it might take some of the email scandal down with it if Clinton plays her cards right.

But perhaps no moment has better prepared Mrs. Clinton for a theoretical comeback (or as much of a comeback as a woman who still leads in every major national poll can make) than the subject of gun control entering the national purview.  With the shootings in Oregon, coupled with shootings in Sandy Hook, Aurora, Lafeyette, Charleston, Tucson and dozens of others, gun control has become a topic that nearly every Democrat in the primaries wants to talk about, and one that has become deeply partisan.  Democrats are lashing out at Republicans who bring up mental health, both because it doesn't solve the problem of why other western countries with mentally ill people don't experience this level of violence, and because it disproportionately is used only to describe young, white male killers and not men of color.  The racial imbalance, along with the fact that seemingly nothing is being done about this issue because of Congress, has made it a potentially critical issue for the Democratic Primary, and it's one of the rare issues where Sec. Clinton can run to the left of Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Sanders, as a result of his living in a state with a low crime rate and a number of avid sportsman, has a considerably more conservative record on gun control than you'd expect from a Socialist who has repeatedly been cited as a "true liberal" to Clinton's moderate.  Sanders got into a heated discussion with Bill Maher about gun control, touting the line of "mental health" being more important than "gun control," which Maher pointed out is a standard NRA line.  Sanders famously voted against the Brady Bill in 1993 when he was in the House (which instituted mandatory background checks), and voted to allow firearms on Amtrak in the Senate.  Perhaps most damning of all, however, is the clear juxtaposition between Clinton and Sanders on a 2005 bill that gave gun manufacturers immunity in terms of lawsuits from victims of violence; Sanders voted for the bill, Clinton against it.  Sanders record on the issue is pretty erratic, quite frankly (he voted for the Manchin-Toomey bill a few years back, the last real legislation on the issue of gun control), but few would argue that he isn't to the right of Clinton on this issue.

This is a huge coup for Clinton, as a lot of Sanders' supporters and in particular Elizabeth Warren enthusiasts have chastised the former First Lady for her seemingly convenient shift to the left on issues such as Wall Street reform, but this is a game that Clinton can play against Sanders, and like Kevin McCarthy's Benghazi comment, will come with the added benefit of muting Sanders argument that "she changed her mind."  If Sanders is changing his positions or "tweaking" them, then so can Clinton; to say otherwise would brand Sanders hypocritical and, far more damning considering his appeal in the primary a "typical politician."  And this also gives Clinton some fire in her campaign in a way that she hasn't had for months-watching how she goes after Sanders and Republicans on the issue of gun control will be major headlines, and with her Benghazi hearing coming up there's a decent chance that Hillary getting mad (like she did with Savannah Guthrie this morning) could happen again; the Benghazi hearings have now gone from "hit them while they're down" to "don't say anything clearly meant to score political points."

It's worth noting, of course, that ultimately the general election for Clinton will not be decided by gun control.  It will be decided by the economy or potentially national security, but more than likely the economy.  However, primaries are not decided by the same political wisdoms of the general, and Hillary Clinton has a primary problem right now.  It's not that people don't think she can win (most people still predict that), but it's that they're concerned that she can't beat a Marco Rubio or a Jeb Bush in the general election.  Scoring points on Sanders and also riling up the base with a red meat issue like gun control is a ticket to assuage such worries.  The past 72 hours have proven that Hillary Clinton is willing to step outside her comfort zone and still score the political point in a way we haven't seen, quite honestly, since the waning days of her 2008 primary.  The next few weeks will be critical, but with a debate just a week away Hillary Clinton has something right now that she hasn't been able to seize all year: an opportunity.

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