Paul Waldman is the Prospect's daily blogger and senior writer. He also blogs for the Plum Line at the Washington Post, and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.
(AP Photo/LM Otero) Rick Perry, then governor of Texas, waits to be introduced at a gun shop in Dallas, Thursday, September 16, 2010. Perry, touting his pro-gun credentials in his re-election campaign, was on hand to pick up the endorsement of the National Rifle Association. T here was a time not too long ago when Republicans knew that when an election got tight, they could trot out "God, guns, and gays" to drive a cultural wedge between Democrats and the electorate, since the GOP was the party that, like most Americans, loved the first two and hated the third. It's more complicated now, both within the parties and between them, but there's no doubt that 2016 will feature plenty of culture-war sniping. For better or worse, Democrats and Republicans really do represent two different Americas. I thought of that this weekend reading this article in the Washington Post about the personal relationships the potential Republican candidates have with guns. That they are all opposed to any...
There was a time not too long ago when Republicans knew that when an election got tight, they could trot out "God, guns, and gays" to drive a cultural wedge between Democrats and the electorate, since the GOP was the party that, like most Americans, loved the first two and hated the third. It's more complicated now, both within the parties and between them, but there's no doubt that 2016 will feature plenty of culture-war sniping. For better or worse, Democrats and Republicans really do represent two different Americas.
I thought of that this weekend reading this article in the Washington Post about the personal relationships the potential Republican candidates have with guns. That they are all opposed to any limits on gun ownership is a given, but more interesting is the role guns play in their own lives. With a couple of important exceptions, the potential Republican candidates fall into one of two categories when it comes to guns: those who grew up with them, and those who embraced them once their political ambitions matured.
Some of them have been building their collections since childhood. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) is up to 12 now, including an AR-15 assault weapon that he has talked about using if law and order ever breaks down in his neighborhood. Former Texas governor Rick Perry is so well-armed, he has a gun for jogging.
Others were city kids who didn't own guns until later in life. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) bought a .357 magnum revolver in 2010, the year he ran for Senate, saying the gun was for protection… [Ted Cruz] grew up in the suburbs of Houston and got his first exposure to guns at summer camp. But, as an adult, Cruz bought two guns: a .357 magnum revolver and a Beretta Silver Pigeon II shotgun, according to a spokeswoman… In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker also didn't grow up hunting. But he got his first guns in his mid-30s: a shotgun he won in a raffle and a rifle he got as a gift, said a spokeswoman for his political committee. Now he hunts deer, pheasants and ducks with his motorcycle-riding buddies… Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal purchased a snubnosed, laser-sighted Smith & Wesson .38 revolver after Hurricane Katrina. He still keeps it for home defense, although his home is now the heavily guarded Governor's Mansion.
Far be it from me to question the sincerity of any politician's enthusiasm for firearms, but buying a gun does seem an awful lot like the kind of thing a Republican politician does just because that's what Republican politicians are expected to do. But there's gun rights, and then there's contemporary gun culture. The two are not at all the same, and it's the latter some Republicans seem so eager to embrace.
There's an important context here, which is that gun ownership has been steadily declining for about four decades now. Yet even as fewer and fewer people own guns, gun sales are increasing, which means that the people who do own them are buying more and more. Ask a certain kind of gun-owner how many he owns, and he'll say, "More than I need, but not as many as I want."
And it's that culture that many Republican politicians feel the need to make their own. You could see it as part of a general conservative nostalgia for a time that's passed, when the law was a distant force and a man might have to protect his homestead from rustlers and thieves. The trouble is that for many gun-owners today, guns are less tools with everyday uses than fetish objects. It's the very fact that they serve no practical purpose in most gun-owners' lives that makes them so emotionally powerful. When a guy like Lindsey Graham says that needs his AR-15 in case "there was a law-and-order breakdown in my community," he's living in a land of fantasy, where a middle-aged guy who wears a suit every day is actually an agent of heroic violence, the very embodiment of physical capability and potency.
But the bare fact is this: There are places in America where gun ownership is common and expected, and places where it isn't. And more Americans live in the latter. So when Republicans proclaim themselves representatives of the first type of place—in both ideas and habits—they put themselves at an immediate disadvantage.
But not all of them do. Jeb Bush, for instance, has the appropriate Republican policy stance when it comes to guns (along with an A-plus rating from the NRA), but he does not himself own a gun. (The only other potential candidate who doesn't is Chris Christie.) Which makes perfect sense if we think about gun ownership being so much a function of geography. Unlike some of his opponents—the emphatically Texan Rick Perry, the extremely Midwestern Scott Walker—Jeb isn't really from any particular place. As a member of the Bush clan, he grew up travelling a kind of elevated platform of wealth and power that traverses the country. Connecticut, Texas, Florida—wherever it was, it was essentially the same. That isn't really his fault; when your grandfather is a senator and your father becomes president, and you go to Andover and summer at Kennebunkport, that's the world you're from. And it isn't a world where people view guns as a vital cultural totem. If Jeb walked out on a stage holding a rifle over his head, he'd look even dumber than Mitch McConnell did.
We don't think about Hillary Clinton representing any particular place either. She grew up in Illinois but left it behind, spent almost two decades in Arkansas then left for Washington, and now lives in New York, but doesn't embody any of those places (or even try to). That's fine with liberals, whose demands for cultural affinity are served well enough by someone who moved around a lot. The president she's trying to succeed most definitely represented a particular place, though it was less Chicago specifically than American cities in general, the dense and diverse places liberals either live or want to live.
And that's where all the Republicans have a problem. They continue to romanticize rural and small-town life, but the number of Americans who actually live in those places is small and getting smaller. Even if plenty of suburban Republicans still imagine themselves out on the range, that isn't the American reality. Planting your flag there may seem necessary to win the Republican nomination, but it won't do you much good the day after.
Megan Giglia of the Great Britain Cycling Team in action during the bronze final of the Women's C-3 3km Pursuit on day two of the UCI Para-cycling Track World Championships in Apeldoorn, Netherlands. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images for British Cycling)
Last July, President Obama took a fundraising trip to Texas and, to the feigned outrage of conservatives, did not go visit the border. Passing up the opportunity to stand next to a border patrol agent gesturing off into the distance, or to walk thoughtfully along a section of border fence, just showed how unserious Obama is about fixing the problem of illegal immigration. He even turned down an invitation to tour the border with his good friend then-governor Rick Perry. Had only Obama gone and "seen for himself" the situation, Republicans were sure, he would have completely changed his beliefs and policies on immigration to be more in line with theirs.
Scott Walker will not be so foolish, and here's the evidence:
And what insights about the border did Governor Walker glean from his time there? Probably that, as Governor Abbott says, the federal government has failed to secure it. Which is exactly what he would have said yesterday.
Look, I'm all in favor of politicians learning things and seeing things. But at this point, Scott Walker is a presidential candidate, which means that every place he goes is carefully chosen for its PR value. When he gets there, he sweeps in with a retinue of aides (not to mention members of the press) and everyone he talks to is pre-screened to make sure they aren't going to say anything that'll make him uncomfortable, and the whole thing will be judged a success if they get a few good pictures out of it.
Which is what campaigning is, of course, but I'm sure that the next time the subject of immigration comes up, Walker will say, "You know, when I was at the border…" to establish that unlike some people who might just talk about this stuff, he's seen it with his own eyes, and therefore his judgment is based on a deep understanding of the issue. But while there are some things you can learn about immigration by gazing across the border, those things make up a miniscule portion of everything one might want to know about the topic in order to formulate good policy.
There's nothing wrong with seeing things for yourself; the problem comes when you convince yourself you've seen everything you need to.
It's presidential campaign time, which means that I will have ample opportunity to fulminate against my many pet peeves of political rhetoric in the months to come. There are few higher on that list than the repeated claim politicians make that they aren't really politicians—they don't really think or know much about politics, and they're both repulsed by and unfamiliar with this strange and sinister place called "Washington, D.C." that they just happen to be so desperate to move to. Obi-Wan Kenobi may have said of Mos Eisley, "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy," but he didn't follow that up with, "But I don't really know anything about the place, which is why I'm the best person to guide you through it." Because that would have been ridiculous. Not so our politicians, however. And here's the latest:
Jeb Bush isn't a New York Times reader.
The former Florida governor and likely Republican presidential candidate appeared on Fox News Radio on Thursday and, when asked to respond to a quote in the paper, said he doesn't read it.
"I don't read The New York Times, to be honest with you," Bush told Fox's Brian Kilmeade.
The quote in question came from Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, who was quoted in the Times saying that the Christian right should begin discussing which candidate to back as an alternative to Bush, because he didn't represent their views….
Kilmeade later asked, "Would [Perkins] be somebody you'd approach. Would you say, Tony, you're misunderstanding me. We need to talk. I read that column today in The New York Times?"
"Maybe I'll give him a call today, I don't know," Bush said. "I don't read The New York Times. But if you're going to force me to do so...."
You'll notice that Bush points out that he doesn't read The New York Times not once, but twice. Can I say for sure that this is a lie, and Jeb Bush does in fact read The New York Times? Of course not. But the point is that instead of just saying, "I didn't see that article," he has to make a point of letting people know he doesn't read the Times, as some high-falutin' elitist would.
Nobody has to read The New York Times in particular. It does remain the most important news outlet in America, not because its audience is the largest but because it has more influence than any other. When a story appears in the Times, it can set the agenda for the entire news media (media scholars have actually documented this effect). Unless you're Sarah Palin, if you're a politician it's part of your job to keep abreast of what's going on, which means you'll at least glance at the Times, The Washington Post, and probably The Wall Street Journal. I'm sure that one of Jeb Bush's staffers assembles for him a collection of clips that he can look at every day so he knows what's happening in the world.
But Bush feels the need to display his own (alleged) ignorance and disinterest, lest anyone believe that this guy—whose grandfather was a senator, whose father and brother were both president, who was a governor, and whose entire life has been wrapped up in American politics—might actually be so crass and cynical as to keep up with the news.
In this, Bush is following a family tradition of pretending to be "jus' folks." George H.W. did it in typically hamhanded fashion, by letting everyone know he loved pork rinds. George W. was far more adept at it; in 1999, in advance of his run for the White House, he bought a "ranch" to which he would go for vigorous brush-clearing sessions, conducted in the appropriate cowboy costume (boots, hat, belt-buckle). I believe that the sole agricultural product the ranch produced was brush, which Bush would "clear," i.e., move from one place to another, so that he could be photographed in action.
There are reasons one might vote for Jeb Bush, and reasons one might vote against him. But nobody is going to be convinced that he's an outsider who will come to Washington, shake up the system, and bring his real-world common sense to bear on all those politicians and bureaucrats. So let's drop the Unfrozen Caveman Politician bit, shall we?