by Jeff Greenfield · April 5, 2018
It’s Wednesday, November 7, 2018, and the Democrats have awakened to the taste of ashes in their mouths. Despite the poll numbers and the pattern of history, Republicans have somehow managed to keep their losses small enough to retain control of the House. They’ve even picked up a seat or two in the Senate.
How could this have happened? Was it the gerrymandered House districts, the flood of dark money from the Mercers and the Kochs, the suppression of voters in key states?
Maybe. But should that Democratic disaster come to pass, a good deal of the explanation would lie in an aphorism often misattributed to Voltaire: “I can take care of my enemies, but Lord protect me from my friends.” Some of the most damaging blows to Democratic hopes this year are friendly fire.
The most recent—and most harmful—came from John Paul Stevens, the retired Supreme Court Justice, who wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times in which he called for an outright repeal of the Second Amendment. Stevens, who wrote a powerful dissent in District of Columbia v. Heller, the case that established an individual right to bear arms under the Constitution, wrote in the Times: “Overturning that decision via a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Second Amendment would be simple and would do more to weaken the N.R.A.’s ability to stymie legislative debate and block constructive gun control legislation than any other available option. … It would eliminate the only legal rule that protects sellers of firearms in the United States—unlike every other market in the world.”
It is hard to overstate just how off-kilter Stevens’ argument is. In the first place, repealing the Second Amendment is “simple” in the same way that ending submarine warfare by heating the oceans to the boiling point is “simple.” There may be an alternate universe where there are 191 House members, 67 senators and 38 state legislatures ready to vote for the amendment’s repeal, but back here on Planet Earth? Not so much. (The only proposal less likely to succeed is the idea of depriving smaller states of the same clout in the Senate as the bigger ones. Why? Because Article V of the Constitution specifically says that “no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate” and that this rule cannot be amended.)
Second, as Justice Stevens knows, the Heller decision did not rule out a wide range of limits on the individual right to bear arms. The decision specifically did not hold that individuals have a “right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” We can, for example, prohibit firearm possession by felons and the mentally ill. Likewise, the Court majority more or less pre-emptively sanctioned bans on firearms in schools and government buildings, and bans on high-powered weapons like assault rifles.
These kinds of limits are at the heart of every plausible effort to come to grips with the gun violence that plagues the United States. The key to any chance of enacting useful laws is to argue that they can co-exist within the current understanding of the Second Amendment and that they are not a backdoor effort to confiscate weapons. Justice Stevens, by contrast, seems to validate the central message of the NRA and its acolytes: “Don’t believe the sweet words; they are out to get your weapons!”
If you are a senator like Joe Donnelly, or Heidi Heitkamp, or Jon Tester, or Joe Manchin, or if you are a Democrat looking to unseat a Republican House member in a rural district, your opponent has now been given a powerful weapon to argue that “no matter what my opponent says, their heart is with one of their liberal-hero judges.” At best, you have just been given a 20-pound weight to carry on your shoulders.
The recent tweet that came from a Planned Parenthood chapter in Pennsylvania is the same kind self-sabotage. No organization has been more targeted by the right than Planned Parenthood. It has survived the joint efforts of Republican leaders and President Donald Trump to defund it, largely because its noncontroversial work—birth control, cancer screenings, breast exams—has won it the approval of a significant majority of Americans, despite its role as an abortion provider. So what did this Pennsylvania chapter offer during this precarious moment? In talking about Disney princesses, it tweeted: “We need a princess who’s had an abortion … who’s pro-choice … who’s an undocumented immigrant … who’s actually a union worker … who’s trans.” The tweet was deleted, but not before Fox News and other conservative voices had a field day with it.
Yes, it’s just a tweet by a local chapter, probably written by a young staffer, but what made it so inexplicable was that, whatever the author’s intent, it read like a provocation by a voice who assumed that every American embraced these hotly contested ideas. To someone at all uneasy about the cultural upheavals of the past decade, the tweet was evidence that their opinions are considered illegitimate, unreasonable, beyond the pale. And for Democrats in red districts who have to navigate these cultural minefields, the tweet made their journeys even harder. (As it happens, Disney princesses have already been retailored for the 21st century. They no longer passively wait for rescue from a prince, and they possess their own athletic skills and other strengths).
Finally, I’d add to this list what I call “magical cable news thinking.” My anecdotal sense is that countless liberals are drawn to the never-ending, numbing procession of TV panel after TV panel, all focused on the Mueller investigations and what they might yield. (Stormy Daniels has now become the second obsessive subject.) Whenever I click on CNN during prime time, it feels like Groundhog Day. Each hour seems to promise that any minute now, federal marshals will parade down Pennsylvania Avenue with warrants and cuffs. And for many Democrats, the promise of a House takeover in 2019 is that impeachment hearings will begin roughly 30 minutes after Paul Ryan hands the gavel over to Nancy Pelosi (or her successor).
Maybe one or both of these events will transpire, although it’s hard to divine much from the reported communication from Mueller to Trump’s lawyers that the president is a “subject” but not a “target” of the special counsel’s investigations. But if Democrats should have learned anything from 2016, it is that the low regard in which most Americans hold Donald Trump does not necessarily translate into votes for Democrats.
What matters—and what is overshadowed by the cable news coverage and in too many Democratic messages—is what the Trump administration is actually doing. For instance, the budget reluctantly signed by the president includes $540 million for the Gateway tunnel, to provide new rail service between New York and New Jersey. If the administration, out of presidential pique with Chuck Schumer, reneges on that commitment, it would deal a blow to the economy of the Northeast on a par with a series of major hurricanes. The impact would strike everyone from commuters to factory workers in Republican-held congressional districts from New York to New Jersey to Pennsylvania. Or take the administration’s decision to weaken the fuel-efficiency standards that car companies were supposed to meet, which would make the air we breathe less healthy. Or the way that the administration has diluted the ability of Medicaid to provide health care for working-class Americans.
These are the kinds of stories that a 24-hour news network ought to be covering extensively. They should also form the arguments that a party seeking a return to political power ought to be hitting, repeatedly and forcefully. They do not depend on what Robert Mueller concludes, nor on whether the public learns all the details of the Stormy Daniels affair. They do not lose their power if the fervent dreams of Democrats that Trump will be exposed in all his mendacious obstructionism do not come true.
The sweep of history, the public’s low regard for the president and the results of special elections all suggest a “blue wave” is forming for November. But magical thinking has the power to prevent the Democrats from surfing that wave to victory.
Politico · by Jeff Greenfield · April 5, 2018