I haven’t read any stories about the innocent children and teachers whose lives were cut short because they went to school at Sandy Hook Elementary on Friday. I couldn’t read about the innocent victims who died because they went to a movie in July, either. It’s just too hideous. It would make me too angry. I know that at times like this I’m just supposed to hug my kids and think about the fragility of life, but you know what? I hug my kids all the time. I’ve been thinking about politics.
I explained after the Aurora movie-theater murders why I think this kind of tragedy ought to be politicized. Politics is serious business. At least it ought to be. The kind of people who believe politics is inappropriate at times like this tend to be the kind of people who believe politics is trivial entertainment. But politics matters, even though it’s typically covered like a game. I think Mike Huckabee’s remarks blaming the Newtown murders on restrictions on God in schools were absurd, but I agree with him that public policies have consequences. Now is a time to debate them, not to STFU.
I’ve noticed that after the latest horrifying massacre, Beltway pundits (and not just liberal gun control advocates, the usual targets of the don’t-politicize-tragedies crowd) seem more receptive than usual to the idea that it ought to spark a policy discussion. To me, the carnage in Aurora seemed just as horrifying, the fates of the slaughtered at that Christian college in Oakland (no restrictions on God at that school, Governor Huckabee!) and Virginia Tech just as unfair. But apparently the specific targeting of small children makes this particular abomination different. Now it’s apparently OK to talk politics, even gun politics.
Well, here’s what I’m thinking: The politics of this particular abomination probably won’t be different at all. I explained last year after a psychopath shot Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and a bunch of bystanders in Tucson why Congress was unlikely to pass even modest gun restrictions, even after an attempted assassination of a colleague. Part of this was about Democratic uneasiness about guns; some Democrats with large rural constituencies are quite gun-friendly, while President Obama, an urban guy who supports gun control, avoided the topic for most of his first term to avoid alienating gun-friendly voters. But the main obstacle has been the modern Republican Party, which caters almost exclusively to its base. In 1994, dozens of Republicans supported President Clinton’s ban on assault weapons like the one used to mow down children in Newtown; in 2012, GOP congressmen who deviate from the party line become ex-congressmen.
Anyway, Republicans still control the House of Representatives. And even if Democratic leaders do get aggressive about gun control, they don’t have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, much less a filibuster-proof anti-gun majority. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid gets along fine with the National Rifle Association. Maybe Obama will start pushing for restrictions now that he doesn’t have to worry about reelection, but he doesn’t have a magic bully pulpit. Maybe Republican leaders will have a change of heart, or enough Republican back-benchers will defy their leaders to tip the scales, but I doubt it.
The point is that elections have consequences. And as I’ve written over and over in the Obama era, legislation that doesn’t pass Congress doesn’t make change. In his first term, liberals complained about Obama’s reluctance to push for a bigger stimulus, a second stimulus, a public option for health care, a cap-and-trade regime to combat global warming. But he didn’t have the votes for any of that stuff. In 2011, he finally launched a public campaign for a second stimulus, the American Jobs Act, but it went nowhere, because Republicans didn’t want it, and Obama’s public campaign made them want it even less. He doesn’t have superpowers. And a party unified around reality-defying ideas has a virtual veto on domestic policy legislation.
Still, Obama did manage to get a big and transformative stimulus, including $90 billion to launch a green energy revolution that is helping to combat global warming. He got a universal health care bill, including unprecedented support for the mental health resources that gun advocates keep saying are more important than gun controls. His Environmental Protection Agency just enacted new pollution regulations on soot that could save more lives than renewing the assault weapons ban. Change is hard, not impossible.
Of course, soot regulations aren’t going to comfort heartbroken families in Newtown. But they’re another reminder that politics is more than gaffes and memes. It’s life and death. And if this massacre really is different, if Americans decide they really do want to do something about guns, they’ll need to elect different politicians to Congress.