Red-State Democrats: Profiles in Cowardice

(Clockwise from top left) Red state Democrats Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Joe Donnelly (IN), Max Baucus (MO), Mark Pryor (AR), Kay Hagan (NC) and Mark Begich (AK). If the gun reform movement sparked by Newtown ultimately comes to naught, rest assured that the top prize for spinelessness will be awarded to as many as eight quaking Senate Democrats.

We all know that the Republicans prefer to do nothing to curb gun violence; their instransigence is to be expected. But they have no political incentive to act - not even to support expanded background checks - when the red-state Democrats are just as reluctant. Gun reform, no matter how modest, doesn't stand a chance unless those red-staters step up. And yet, despite landslide public support for expanded background checks of private gun purchasers, these quaking Democrats are afraid to endorse even that.

It's noteworthy that Mayor Michael Bloomberg's $12-million ad campaign for gun reform targets not just the most theoretically persuadable Senate Republicans, but also is destined for TV screens in red states represented by Democrats. The ads are designed to light a fire under red-state Democrats like Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.

The Bloomberg ads are slated to run in those five states. Various national polls show that 91 percent of Americans, 87 percent of Republicans and 85 percent of NRA households, support a law that would mandate background checks on gun show buyers. And yet few red-state Democrats have uttered a peep in support.

Granted, some of those Democrats - Pryor, Hagan, Landrieu, Baucus, and Begich - face tough re-election fights in 2014. And, granted, Democrats have to defend 21 of 35 Senate seats up for grabs in 2014, which means that retaining those red states is crucial to the party's continued control of the chamber. So perhaps it's understandable that those incumbents would be reluctant to say or do anything that might conceivably bestir the voters in anti-Obama states. And their Senate leader, Harry Reid, who tried and failed to secure an NRA endorsement for his own Nevada re-election in 2010, has done nothing to nudge those incumbents toward any aspect of gun reform.

On the other hand, it doesn't exactly require a profile in courage for a red-state Democrat to endorse expanded background checks, to tell one's constituents that screening for bad guys is not inconsistent with the sainted constitutional guarantee of a well-regulated militia. Alas, the abject fear of the NRA apparently remains pervasive, even on a commonsensical issue where the NRA hierarchy is out of step with the NRA rank and file. The current cowardice of that Democratic quintet is pitiful.

Heitkamp is even worse. Newly elected to her seat, she doesn't have to face the voters again until 2018 - yet she's in the bunker on background checks, behaving as if expanded screening was a plot to pry guns from cold dead hands. Heitkamp had barely been sworn in when she opined that the White House's reform proposals were "way in the extreme of what I think is necessary." Yesterday, a spokesman said she's "still reviewing proposals on the table."

There's a glint of daylight on several Democratic fronts. Donnelly, newly elected in Indiana, says he might be "open" to expanded background checks. Hagan, the North Carolinian, says she might be willing to "start a conversation." Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Tim Johnson of South Dakota have hinted that maybe they'd vote for expanded background checks (Johnson announced his retirement today, so presumably he's now free to act in the public interest). Big whoop. If reform is going to stand a chance this spring (forget a new assault weapons ban, that's DOA already), if the Senate has any hopes of breaking a threatened Republican filibuster, all the red-state Democrats will need to grow spines - on an issue that doesn't require any bravery.

Because if these Democrats can't even get it together to support a modest gun reform endorsed by 91 percent of the American people, what hope do we have that Newtown will ever be properly avenged?

Copyright 2013 Dick Polman, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia and a "Writer in Residence" at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at

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