Mark Pryor & the NRA: the scant reward for political caution

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There are certain issues and interest groups that politicians will bend over backwards to avoid upsetting. We all know from the abysmal state of gun laws in this country that the National Rifle Association is one of them. Think Progress reports on just what fealty to the gun lobby got Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR):

Last year, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR) voted against a popular proposal to require people who purchase firearms online or at gun shows first complete a background check. On Tuesday, however, the National Rifle Association announced a $1.3 million ad buy in Pryor’s home state of Arkansas supporting Pryor’s Republican opponent Rep. Tom Cotton.

Last year, the Senate voted 54-46 in support of a proposal to expand background checks for gun purchases — which, in the anti-democratic institution that is the United States Senate, actually counts as a loss for supporters of gun reform. Pryor was one of four Democrats who opposed this proposal.

The Arkansas senator’s vote ran contrary to the views of his home state. A poll taken the month after the vote found that 60 percent of Arkansas voters support “requiring background checks for all gun sales, including gun shows and the internet.” The same poll found that 40 percent of voters said they were more likely to vote for Pryor if he supported expanded background checks, while only 34 percent said they were less likely to support him.

You’re welcome, Mark Pryor. Was it worth taking that vote? Democrats like Pryor are the reason I have to explain periodically when the Democratic Party calls me that I will never give them my money directly. I’ll give to the Democrats that inspire me and show they’re doing things that are worth my money. I’m not going to argue that hanging on to the Senate isn’t an important goal, but timid politicians aren’t where I want to spend my money and my time, and it’s hard to get other activists excited about them.

Pryor is in a tough race, and we don’t know the end of this story yet. He may still pull out a win in Arkansas. On some issues, he’s sure to be better than the Republican he’s running against. But that’s not the stuff of rousing political rhetoric.

It’s tempting to imagine a different scenario. One in which Sen. Pryor voted for popular reforms to gun laws and aggressively defended his decision. Where he stood up and acknowledged that what he was doing might be unpopular with a vocal minority, but he can’t let that vocal minority derail much-needed reform. That he couldn’t look at himself in the mirror after children were slaughtered in a horrible, violent tragedy if he voted against a bill that could make all of us safer and had the strong backing of his constituents.

It sounds like something we’d hear over swelling music on The West Wing. Why does it sound like a ridiculous fantasy that political realists will surely shake their heads at? Why do politicians and their advisors think the presence of such political “bravery” (and I’m putting it in quotes here since you’re still talking about taking a position that has broad public support) is pop culture fluff only soft-hearted liberals like myself will respond to? I know this will sound idealistic and naive to some readers, and that’s part of the problem. Why is it so outside the realm of reality that a candidate would try this, and succeed?

The reason it sounds like wish fulfillment is because so few politicians, and the party infrastructures that support them, are willing to take a gamble on this kind of strategy. It’s too scary to really test whether people will turn out for candidates who display authenticity, straightforwardness, and a willingness to stand behind their principles. They’d rather cower and squeak out a win than take a risk for the right reasons and lose an election (because we all know former politicians are eminently unemployable).

I’ve written before on John Oliver’s series of pieces on gun control; it’s one of the most brilliant things The Daily Show has done. He chronicles how Australian politicians risked their careers to pass stricter gun laws in the wake of a massacre. Some of them lost their seats, but they recognized that the importance of cracking down on gun violence trumped saving their political careers. They won, and gun violence decreased dramatically. Is it so much better to cling to elected office by being cautious than to lose because you fought valiantly for something you believe in?

Who knows if this kind of strategy would work. I could certainly imagine that a lot of progressives with time and money to spare would be far more enthusiastic about lending it to his campaign than they are now. At the very least, it’s hard to imagine Pryor would be much worse off than he is now.


Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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