Base Politics

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I’m struck by the stark difference in the ways Democratic and Republican candidates have reacted to two events this week that at least potentially play to each party’s base voters. In the aftermath of the horrific killings at Virginia Tech, for which a mentally unstable 23-year-old was able to purchase two handguns, legally and easily, Democrats running for president have stepped gingerly around the issue of gun control. Partly that’s because candidates sensibly and sensitively don’t want to make a political issue out of the VT tragedy so soon after it happened. But, as others have said and written, there’s another reason: Democratic fears that being seen as an advocate for stricter gun control laws is a political loser, as it was for Al Gore in 2000 in key states like Tennessee, West Virginia, Arkansas and Florida. Despite liberal support for greater gun control, Democratic candidates are wary of pleasing the base at the risk of alienating pro-gun Democrats and independents.

GOP hopefuls, on the other hand, all rushed to the microphones to hail today’s 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, so named by abortion opponents, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bush in 2003. Even Rudy “I-was-for-it-before-I-was-against-it” Giuliani was quick to praise the narrow SCOTUS majority for reaching the “correct conclusion” in upholding the ban. Mitt Romney, of course, applauded the decision, having traveled an even greater distance than Giuliani in remaking himself on abortion. McCain hailed the decision. But he’s been far more consistent on abortion than his two rivals.

One conclusion to draw from this difference is that anti-abortion forces are much stronger within the GOP than pro-gun control forces are within the Democratic Party. Another one is that gun control does not rank as high on the priority list among Democratic liberals as restricting abortion does among GOP social conservatives.

What I don’t know is whether candidates from both parties are mishandling these issues. Are grassroots Democrats who support gun control going to be turned off by their candidates’ timidity? Will Republicans who have grown tired of the influence of social issues on the GOP’s agenda be appalled by the way Giuliani, McCain and Romney curry favor with the religious right?

What do you think?