The other night, former Gov. Ed Rendell was calling from the Acela, on his way back to Philly from New York. He was his usual ebullient self, but this time it wasn’t because of our Eagles, or because his bumpy, call-dropping Northeast corridor ride had reminded him of another passion we share—high-speed rail that, if only we think big, could make the trek down I-95 in all of a half-hour. No, Rendell was buzzed because he’d just seen the kids on TV, leading him to tweet: Hooray for Parkland kids. They are one foe the NRA can’t scare, can’t intimidate, can’t buy off, and can’t and won’t beat! Lead on, kids!!
“They’re what’s different this time,” he said, over and over again of the Florida students who, emerging from tragedy, have told the political chattering class to stick their thoughts and prayers you know where and have, for more than a week now, been speaking truth to power in a way we haven’t seen in the United States of Status Quo for some time.
Most bullies collapse in a whimpering heap when you stand up to them, (see: Patriots, New England), and I reached out to the Guv because I’ve long suspected that, despite the conventional wisdom, the NRA is of that ilk. Five years ago, in the wake of Sandy Hook, there was our Fast Eddie on MSNBC, calling the Republican Governor of Virginia a “coward and a wuss” for not answering his question: “Give us one reason why any law-abiding American should have access to a clip that has more than ten bullets in it or to a semiautomatic assault weapon. There is no reason. There’s no answer.”
But it’s what Rendell said next that has stuck with me: “If you guys are so tough, how come you opposed me in three state-wide elections, in the second highest NRA membership state in the country, and I got elected by 10 points, 12 points and 21 points?” he said. “If the NRA is so tough, how did I win all of those elections?”
“These kids are appealing to the conscience of the nation,” Gov. Rendell says of the Parkland students. “I think they’re going to show that the NRA is not invincible.”
Now, in the wake of Parkland, Rendell isn’t backing down. “They’re the Wizard of Oz,” he says of the much-feared lobbying group. That would make the Parkland kids Dorothy, pulling the Wizard out from behind that curtain.
“The problem was that, after Newtown, those kids, tragically, couldn’t speak for themselves,” Rendell said. “These kids are appealing to the conscience of the nation. I think they’re going to show that the NRA is not invincible.”
The fact is, the NRA, like the Wizard, is great at promoting its own legend, as evidenced by yesterday’s incendiary public comments by its chief executive, Wayne LaPierre. He has mastered the art of doubling down, yesterday skewering the FBI and the media, while exempting his own organization from any culpability. Like the president, LaPierre knows how to publicly intimidate.
But is there much of a there there? The NRA has contributed all of $4.1 million to members of Congress over the last 20 years—which doesn’t even rank it in the top 50 of lobbying spending. Rendell rightly points out that that doesn’t include IE’s, or indirect expenditures, money spent on behalf of its favored candidates. But even when you take IE’s into account, it’s clear that the NRA clout doesn’t come squarely from the size of its wallet.
“They can’t win big races,” Rendell told me. “They made big contributions to both Mike Fisher and Lynn Swan in my two races for governor, but in a big, statewide race I was able to outraise both of them. But the way the NRA operates is very smart. They get big bang for the buck in smaller races. If you’re a Republican state legislator in, say, Virginia, and you vote against them on background checks, it doesn’t take a lot for them to run against you in a primary and take you out. One win like that—they make sure everyone knows it—and everybody is scared shitless.”
The NRA has contributed all of $4.1 million to members of Congress over the last 20 years—which doesn’t even rank it in the top 50 of lobbying spending. Rendell rightly points out that that doesn’t include IE’s, or indirect expenditures, money spent on behalf of its favored candidates. But even when you take IE’s into account, it’s clear that the NRA clout doesn’t come squarely from the size of its wallet.
There are few political organizations better at convincing the body politic of its own infallibility. Take the 2012 election, when the NRA touted its 52 percent success rate. But, according to one study, the group only had a 20 percent success rate when it spent more than $100,000 in support of, or in opposition to, particular candidates.
But the NRA is great at optics. One of its true strokes of genius is its report card, which grades legislators on their gun rights purity. Forget that, in 2012, 20 of 26 candidates with lower NRA ratings than their opponents actually won election. The perception of NRA power is what matters. “I’ve talked to Republicans who can’t get anything less than an A or an A-,” Rendell said. “If they get a B, they know they’ll be primaried.”
In that sense, for all the screaming nowadays about Trump raising $30 million from the NRA, the most in presidential history, the NRA’s true currency is votes, not dollars. Trump didn’t promise fealty to the NRA after he became president because of the money. He owes them because they mobilized voters for him.
So, keeping in mind the important caveat that it may be too late for gun control to even be the answer—there are 300 million guns in circulation in America, and no one will be rounding them up, no matter what legislation passes—now that the Parkland kids are appealing to the nation’s better angels, is Rendell right? Could this be the moment when the NRA is revealed as just another lobbying group, not so much a defender of a constitutional right as a shill for gun manufacturers?
Rendell thinks there’s a chance. It will require both an inside and outside game, however. Outside, the kids of Parkland will have to keep the narrative going and not allow our ADD media to move on to the next shiny object. Inside, the 38 Republicans retiring from the House and the three GOP senators doing the same—newly freed from the clutches of the NRA—will have to opt for a drop the mic moment on their way out.
Rendell must sense my doubt. “It wouldn’t take much,” says the eternal optimist. “Uniform background checks, banning assault weapons and multiple magazine clips. Those three things would save lives. It’s doable.”
And what about the Democrats? With the exception of West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who comes from gun-toting country, there hasn’t been someone willing to do what Rendell once did: Take on the NRA when it’s politically inconvenient. That gets us back to Rendell’s favorite theme, the wussiness in our politics. “I tell our guys all the time, c’mon guys, if you’re going to run for office, believe in something. If you lose, you lose,” he says.Header photo: Josh Lopex via Flickr