I've spent a good deal of time in the last year pushing back against the twin myths that the NRA delivered Congress to the Republicans in 1994, and then delivered the White House to George W. Bush in 2000. And no one is more responsible for the propagation of those myths, and the fear they inspire among Democratic office-holders, than Bill Clinton. For years, he has told anyone who'd listen that Democrats lost the House in 1994 because he passed an assault weapons ban and gun owners punished his party for it. He'll also say that guns were the reason Al Gore lost to George W. Bush in 2000. And now, at a moment when the prospects for meaningful restrictions on gun proliferation are greater than they have been in two decades, he's at it again. In a speech to Democratic donors, Clinton said the following:
Clinton recalled Al Gore's 2000 campaign against George W. Bush in Colorado, where a referendum designed to close the so-called gun show loophole shared the ballot with the presidential ticket. Gore publicly backed the proposal, while Bush opposed it.
Though the referendum passed with 70 percent of the vote, Gore lost the state. Clinton said that the reason was because a good chunk of the referendum’s opponents were single-issue voters who automatically rejected Gore as anti-gun.
And Clinton said that passing the 1994 federal assault weapons ban “devastated” more than a dozen Democratic lawmakers in the 1994 midterms — and cost then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley (D-Wash.) his job and his seat in Congress.
This is so, so, so very wrong. First, Clinton's logic on Colorado just makes no sense. The gun-show loophole initiative got 70 percent of the vote, but Al Gore lost because he endorsed it? How would that have worked? Gore lost Colorado by over 8 points—it wasn't even close. That means that huge numbers of people who voted for the initiative closing the gun show loophole also voted for Bush. Yet Clinton thinks that within the 30 percent who voted against closing the gun show loophole there were so many gun owners who would have voted for Gore had he not taken a position on the initiative that he would have won if he stayed silent? Please. There is zero evidence that the gun issue hurt Al Gore at all in 2000, and if anything, it probably helped him by boosting his vote total in suburban areas. And frankly, if Bill Clinton is looking for a reason why his vice-president couldn't quite get over the electoral finish line, he might want to consider whether there was something that happened late in his term that made it difficult for Gore to embrace and benefit from all the positive aspects of his presidency. I'm sure it'll come to him if he thinks hard enough—it was kind of a big deal at the time.
And on the 1994 question, Clinton has changed his tune. He used to say that 20 Democratic members lost their seats because of guns. Now he says a dozen. He's basically picking numbers out of the air, but the the truth is that there hasn't been a single systematic examination of the 1994 election that concluded that the gun issue was decisive. You can read more here, but there were numerous factors creating a wave election that year, including the failure of Clinton's health care plan, NAFTA, and a general intensification of partisanship that proved harmful to Democratic members representing heavily Republican areas. But for whatever reason, Bill Clinton long ago decided that the whole election was about guns, and therefore Democrats should never talk about guns again, or if they do, talk about the issue only in the most apologetic way possible, to assure gun owners that they're right and those who are troubled by the 30,000 Americans who die at the end of guns every year are wrong.
In the name of cultural sensitivity, Clinton is counseling what he has on this issue for nearly two decades: cowardice. And what has it gotten Democrats up until now? Nothing. Since Clinton was president, Democrats have been passive and apologetic on guns, just as he suggests, and in response the NRA has grown more extremist and hateful, gun sales have soared, and Republican domination of Clinton's home region has expanded. I'm sure Clinton would be happier if Democrats could win Arkansas again, but they can't. And they shouldn't cover up or betray their beliefs in order to try.