Normally there is something to be said for consistency in politics. No one likes a flip flopper. Just ask Mitt Romney. And when it comes to consistency, blind, unyielding, not one inch consistency, no one does it better than the National Rifle Association – the NRA.
As it has accumulated political power over the last 25 years and become the most feared lobby in the country, the NRA has been nothing if not brutally consistent. For the NRA there is no room for compromise on guns and gun issues – none. If you’re in public office you are either for the NRA down the line or you are soft on the Second Amendment and not to be trusted with public responsibilities and very likely a one of those willing to standby when the government comes for the guns.
Maybe, just maybe, in light of the horrors of Sandy Hook Elementary where some of the six-year-olds suffered 11 gunshot wounds, the NRA’s brutal commitment to consistency has, at last, become a liability.
My one direct and personal engagement with the NRA’s brand of no prisoners, no negotiation politics dates back to 1986 and the moment has left a deep and jagged scar where I once naively thought actions and intentions meant more than blind allegiance to an NRA that has clearly become little more than a front group for gun manufacturers.
For those old enough to remember the 1986 race for governor of Idaho was a tough, competitive and ultimately extremely close election. As a newcomer to politics – I’d covered the business, but not been of the business – the campaign and election were a graduate education in bare knuckles, character assault and, with regard to the NRA, old-fashioned smear politics. The candidates were my boss, Cecil D. Andrus, a Democrat and as big a hunter, sportsman and gun owner as anyone I have ever known and then-Lt. Governor David H. Leroy, a young man definitely on the rise in Idaho GOP politics. Andrus had an edge with experience – he’d twice been elected governor and served in the Carter cabinet – and he spent most of the campaign emphasizing his desire to boost economic development and improve schools. Leroy, who had already been a successful statewide candidate as both Lt. Governor and Attorney General, was smart, ambitious, both well-spoken and well-funded, and determined.
The candidates and their campaigns displayed many differences, one being that in a state where hunting and fishing defined many voters’ weekends, Dave Leroy wasn’t really a hunting and fishing guy. Andrus was and still is. Enter the gun lobby.
The NRA came close – very close – to playing the spoiler in that 1986 race and, as they are wont to do, they entered the contest at the absolute 11th hour with what seemed then, and still seems, a blatantly dishonest smear.
As I look back on the race, with some years of accumulated political experience, I can see clearly now that the campaign was a see-saw affair throughout the summer and into the fall. I distinctly remember a weekend of panic in October when Andrus quietly and determinedly disappeared from the campaign hustings for three long days in order to disappear deep into the Idaho hill for his annual elk hunt. I lived in fear that some enterprising reporter would demand an interview or insist on knowing why the candidate wasn’t campaigning given how close the race had become. Knowing now what I didn’t fully appreciate then, I should have issued a statement announcing that in keeping with annual tradition the Democratic candidate for governor was, for the next few days, only making campaign appearances at his elk camp.
Andrus had not missed an Idaho elk hunt for years and nothing, not even Dave Leroy breathing down his neck, would keep him out of the hills. He’s been known to joke – yes he filled his tag last fall – that with a full freezer and a little luck he might make it through another winter. (I called the former governor yesterday to check my recollection of the NRA’s involvement in the ’86 race and it took him a while to get back to me. He was in a goose pit most of the day.)
Some people live for work, or boats, or football, or skiing, or book collecting. Andrus lives for his hunting and is proud of his gun collection, but that didn’t keep the all-knowing, all-powerful NRA from branding him as “soft” on the Second Amendment doing so at a stage in a political campaign where he barely had time to refute such lunacy.
One of the major gun-related issues at the time involved a robust national debate over the legality of so called “cop killer bullets,” Teflon-coated ammunition that it was said could penetrate a bullet-proof vest, the kind of body armor police officers had begun to routinely wear. In responding to the NRA’s always over simplified and overly dramatic candidate questionnaire, the once and future governor allowed that he hadn’t much use for Teflon-coated bullets or rapid fire assault rifles for that matter. He would later joke that he had never “seen an elk wearing a bullet-proof vest,” but such a policy position, even one coming from a life-long hunter, gun owner and supporter of the Second Amendment was heresy to the “our way or the highway” crowd at the NRA.
On the final weekend of the 1986 campaign, anti-Andrus NRA propaganda started appearing in Idaho mailboxes. Radio ads told Idaho hunters that the hunter-governor had earned a “D” rating from the gun lobby and the political operatives at the NRA had endorsed his non-hunter opponent. I spent that last weekend of that campaign writing and slapping together response ads attempting to refute the smear. In the days before email and the Internet, getting a radio ad on the air on the Saturday before an election was no mean feat, but we did it and by a narrow margin Andrus won the election.
I’ve always taken some satisfaction in knowing – Idaho is a small state – that many Idahoans who might have been inclined to vote in that election solely on the basis of gun issues had firsthand knowledge that their once and future governor actually owned and used guns. In this case the NRA’s smear didn’t work, but it left an impression. These guys don’t know the meaning of nuance and they are blindly partisan. You’re either for ’em, or agin ’em.
In the years since, the NRA has, if anything, become even more dogmatic, shriller and less open to any discussion of policy. As we now see, even in the wake of the first grade massacre in Connecticut and even given the stark realization that more than 1,000 Americans have died at the barrel of gun just in the days since Sandy Hook, the NRA tolerates no deviation from its hard line in the dust. The suggestion that constraints on military-style weapons and high capacity magazines or that national firearms policy might include sensible background checks on gun buyers brings the immediate charge that the sacred Second is being trampled, the president ought to be impeached and the “jack booted thugs” are coming to take the guns. It’s a level of political paranoia and fear mongering completely devoid of reality and on par with theories that the moon landing was faked or that an American president was born in Kenya.
The Andrus Idaho experience nearly 30 years ago, as bitter as the taste remains, actually seems pretty tame compared to the NRA’s response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. The NRA leadership seems to believe that it can just ignore a moral issue that requires sober, reasoned, civilized response. Time will tell whether the real sportsmen who climb into Idaho’s hills every fall and crouch in goose pits in sub-freezing weather will continue to agree.
Americans have a way of coming around to change policy and even change society in ways that once seemed impossible. Moral questions from ending slavery to establishing child labor laws to ensuring voting rights of African-Americans took years – even generations – to be addressed and some of society’s big challenges clearly remain. But perhaps, just perhaps, a civilized, moral nation can come to the realization that a constructive debate about how to try and prevent a future Sandy Hook is a mighty low threshold for a decent people to step across.
The most feared lobby in Washington did not become so feared by being constructive, reasonable, rational or fair. The NRA amassed power the old fashioned way using the same kind of intimidation and arrogance that it accuses its opponents – and even its opponent’s children – of practicing.
Emerson famously said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” The NRA’s foolish consistency in the awful aftermath of the assault gun murders of 20 innocent children does not yet mark the end of the gun lobby hold on our politics, but it may – just may – mark the beginning of the end.