In last week’s column, I stressed the fact that, just as with dogs and children, the key to effectively “training” politicians is to understand what they want most and to consistently provide or withhold that thing; stick and carrot, pleasure and pain. What politicians need more than anything else is to be elected – without that, they’re not even politicians. By having the power to impact elections, and wielding that power consistently and visibly, activists can exercise substantial influence over the voting behavior of politicians.
This week, we tackle the mistake activists and activist organizations make in failing to wield their influence and the most common excuse for making that mistake.
The lesser of two evils
The No. 1 reason for an activist organization to fail to punish a politician who should be punished is the “lesser of two evils” excuse. The basis of this excuse is that while neither candidate is truly “on our side,” one candidate is “less distasteful” than the other (or is less of a threat because he’s a Republican and therefore his caucus will help to keep him in line, or is more desirable because he’s a Democrat and we need some of them on our side, etc.), and therefore that candidate should be supported.
In truth, evil is evil, and while it is acceptable to actively oppose the candidate that is worse on our issues – particularly one who has openly betrayed us – it is almost impossible to justify supporting or endorsing a candidate that has ever been openly hostile to our positions.
But what if the lesser of two evils is a Republican and his loss would almost certainly shift the balance of power and let the Democrats take over or continue in leadership of the legislature?
I deal with gun laws, so shouldn’t I prefer a lousy Republican over a mediocre Democrat? Aren’t Democrats more likely to pass unfavorable gun laws? Not necessarily.
Historically, it has made little difference to gun-rights whether a legislative majority is Republican or Democrat. What matters is the pro-gun legislator. A precious few are true believers in the gun issue, who believe in their hearts in the right to keep and bear arms. But many “pro-gun” politicians are pro-gun because they believe in their hearts that gun owners can make or break their political careers.
When Democrats are in control, they tend to manage votes in a way so as to exploit anti-rights Republicans. The vote in the Senate last year on national reciprocity for concealed-carry licenses was an excellent example. The measure failed by just two votes, and it just so happened that two Republicans (Lugar and Voinovich) had voted against it.
No one noticed at the time or remembers now which Democrats voted against the measure, only that two Republicans betrayed us. Lugar and Voinovich have both been elected with gun-voter support as the lesser of two evils.
The “lesser of two evils” argument only has some merit in the rare case where a candidate has the power and inclination to give us something that we critically need, or block what would be a devastating blow. Such cases are rare but important.
The presidential contest between George Bush and John Kerry is a perfect example. The best President Bush should have been able to expect from gun voters, given his antigun comments and his minimal support for our agenda, was neutrality. On the other hand, John Kerry’s record in the Senate had earned him active opposition in spite of his carefully hedged claims to support the Second Amendment.
The extenuating circumstance in that election was the issue of the Supreme Court. It was clear that seats on the Court were going to come open during the next four years, and it was equally clear that John Kerry would nominate judges in the mold of Steven Bryer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, while Bush was committed to nominating judges of a more constructionist bent of the likes of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Since the Supreme Court holds such extraordinary power and since its members are so few and serve for so long, and their appointments are so rare, the fact that either George Bush or John Kerry would be nominating at least two and possibly three Supreme Court Justices made GunVoter support of President Bush justifiable, even imperative.
That very rare exception proves the rule: There is no such thing as a lesser evil.
GunVoters should never “hold their noses and vote” for a candidate who is actively antigun – especially if that candidate has betrayed us by claiming to support our cause and then working against us. That’s why primaries are so vitally important. By allowing Republicans to nominate John McCain, GunVoters removed themselves from the 2008 presidential election. The way to avoid “lesser of two evils” situations is to ensure that someone good wins in the primary. That requires commitment and participation.
While the current administration has proven that one term – or even just half of a term – can do serious damage to the nation, activists must get away from the idea that one election is going to be the ruin of the country. Even the thrashing the Constitution has received at the hands of Barack Obama & Company can be repaired, and it’s quite possible that a constitutional revival would not have been possible had there not been such arrogant mismanagement over the past two years.
Believing that each election, each seat, each politician, is the most critical in the history of the nation simply condemns us to an endless string of tactical battles with no chance to set strategy.
Sun Tzu said, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
Losing the seat of one antigun politician – R or D – to another antigun politician – R or D – does not diminish our rights. Letting politicians betray us and still receive our support – training them and their brethren that how they vote doesn’t matter as long as we think their challenger will be worse – is what devalues our impact in elections and diminishes our clout in the legislatures, costing us our rights.