One of the things that politicians do well is read polls. No matter what their IQ, lawmakers have a knack for figuring out what will play well with the American voters.
That is why members of the Senate and House like to cut taxes and spend money, even if that creates deficits. That is why they recoil in fear when talking about making modest spending restraints in Social Security and Medicare.
Given those facts, it remains perplexing why U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, joined 44 other senators last month to block expanded criminal background checks for people buying guns. The measure failed because it needed 60 votes to pass.
That might have been the end of that. Just another bull’s-eye for the National Rifle Association, which, when it comes to legislative battles over guns rarely loses.
The problem arises because the vast majority of Americans like background checks. A poll conducted in January by Mayors Against Illegal Guns showed 91 percent of all Americans favor background checks and 86 percent of NRA members support background checks.
Let’s face it, when 91 percent of Americans agree on anything, it’s pretty amazing. You can’t get 91 percent of Americans to agree that the sky is blue.
In addition, criminal background checks hardly amount to an assault on the Second Amendment. In Heller vs. Washington D.C. in 2008, Justice Antonin Scalia ruled that while there is an individual right for an American to own a gun, “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill … or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
What that all means is you can count on Senate Democrats to bring the bill back to the floor for another vote. And another vote is something Portman is not looking forward to. After all, Portman represents Ohio, not Tombstone and the OK Corral, and the overwhelming evidence is that Ohio voters will back politicians who favor some gun restrictions.
Ohio’s late Democratic U.S. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum made a career out of challenging the NRA. As a member of the U.S. House, Republican Mike DeWine voted in favor of the Brady Bill, which mandated a brief waiting period before anyone could buy a gun.
DeWine went on to win one term as lieutenant governor, two terms in the U.S. Senate and currently is state attorney general. True, he lost re-election to the Senate in 2006 to Democrat Sherrod Brown, but that loss had everything to do with the unpopular Iraq war and virtually nothing to do with guns.
So what does Portman do? Mary Anne Sharkey, a Cleveland political consultant who has worked for Republicans and Democrats, said things have “dramatically changed” because of the shooting deaths last December of 20 elementary school students and six adults in Connecticut, adding that “most people are aware that something has to be done.”
David Leland, former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said that because of the rising clout of conservatives in Republican primaries, many Republicans “are making the calculation — which I don’t think is a good calculation in Portman’s case — that they are more worried about” a primary challenge than a general election.
But, Leland said, Portman has “got a much bigger field to appeal to” as a senator as opposed to a congressman, “unless, of course, he’s thinking about running for president and doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of people who vote in the Republican presidential primary.”
Jack Torry is chief of the Dispatch’s Washington Bureau