A front-page story in today's New York Times details how Arizona Senator John McCain is "locking up a cast of top-shelf Republican strategists, policy experts, fund-raisers, and donors" in an effort to put his bid for the Republican Presidential nomination ahead of the pack. Among the strategists joining McCain's team is former National Rifle Association top lobbyist James Jay Baker, now with a private Washington lobbying firm. Baker's addition to this "growing kitchen cabinet" exposes one of McCain's most glaring weaknesses in his efforts to appeal to the Republican base necessary to secure the nomination: McCain has a very big problem with the pro-gun vote. They think he's a weasel and a turncoat.
McCain's "gun problem" stems from two issues: his successful campaign to enact the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform package and his failed Congressional efforts to regulate all sales at gun shows (conducted in a high-profile partnership with Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman and backed by a group called Americans for Gun Safety, which, by its very name, is enough to earn the instant enmity of many activist gun owners). The gun lobby and its rank and file view the campaign finance law as an outrageous infringement on their free speech rights while the effort to regulate gun show sales is viewed as a direct attack on the Second Amendment and liberty itself.
When McCain was trumpeting both of these issues, the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun organizations reacted as jilted, and increasingly, bitter lovers. In June 2001, McCain was attacked in the NRA's America's 1st Freedom magazine over his campaign finance reform package. The magazine's cover story asked, "Like to think your opinion counts? Under the guise of reforming election funding, Sen. John McCain and others are attempting to muzzle your voice concerning critical national issues--including the Second Amendment." The article adds, "McCain was led down a path by a Senate Democratic leadership that is doing all it can to keep the super-senator beholden....[T]hey want a Senate Majority of radical Democrats, who would prove an unprecedented threat to the Second Amendment. John McCain is their Judas goat--leading the sheep to slaughter." The following month's issue warned, in an article titled "What's Happened to John McCain?," that "The gun control debate in Washington has hit center stage because Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has now become one of the premier flag carriers for the enemies of the Second Amendment."
Baker's presence in front-runner McCain's inner circle reflects a clear recognition that not only does he have a "gun problem," but that he desperately needs someone with a direct line to the NRA--and the respect of the NRA's members--to help him solve it. Whether a carefully nuanced "come home, all is forgiven" message from the NRA coupled with a fresh round of pro-gun bleatings from McCain will work remains to be seen. But during the debate over the gun show bill, the NRA even accused McCain of "leaving the door open" to his supporting gun licensing and registration, the organization's equivalent of going nuclear.
The gun lobby, if nothing else, has a very long memory. And voters who make their decisions largely on a candidate's gun position are not a forgiving lot. Take a look at the web site of Gun Owners of America, the group that taps most directly into the zeitgeist of the pro-gun hardcore. It features a section titled "GOA's Take on John McCain" and asks the question, "Conservative or Gun Grabber?" Underneath a picture of McCain with the international ban sign over his face, the group states: "Arizona Senator John McCain is almost certainly running for President again. He has been courting various conservative leaders in his quest to secure the Republican nomination. McCain wants voters to believe that he is a conservative... but his record would certainly suggest otherwise. Take, for instance, his record on gun rights and political speech affecting Second Amendment activists. Abysmal, wretched, and pathetic are words that come to mind." GOA's legislative rating for McCain in 2006: F.
Ironically, while the Democrat party tries to hide from the gun issue, it may well be the Republican party that finds itself mired in controversy because of "gun control."