BYRON TAU | POLITICO
Former President Bill Clinton warned a group of top Democratic donors at a private Saturday meeting not to underestimate the passions that gun control stirs among many Americans.
“Do not patronize the passionate supporters of your opponents by looking down your nose at them,” Clinton said.
“A lot of these people live in a world very different from the world lived in by the people proposing these things,” Clinton said. “I know because I come from this world.”
Clinton dedicated a substantial portion of his 40-minute address before a joint meeting of the Obama National Finance Committee and a group of business leaders to the issue of guns and gun control, saying that it was a test-case for President Barack Obama’s grass-roots movements. (POLITICO was given a transferable ticket by an invited member of the committee.)
“The way the Obama campaign won Florida, won Ohio, won this election by more than projected was the combination of technology, social media and personal contact,” Clinton said. That’s “the only way that our side will ever be able to even up the votes in the midterms and as these issues come up, really touch people and talk to them about it.”
Obama begins his second term facing an uphill battle on gun control — an emotional, divisive and difficult issue that the cool and pragmatic Obama would usually avoid.
Obama took 23 executive actions this week to curb gun violence, but his key proposals will need a vote from Congress to become law. With a GOP House unlikely to take up any new gun control measures — and even some Democrats expressing wariness — his only recourse is to make his case directly to the public.
Clinton said that Republicans have been struggling in presidential politics since 1992 — noting that 2004 was the only time a Republican has won the popular vote in more than 20 years. But, he said, the party has been successful in energizing its supporters for midterm elections.
“You have the power to really democratize America,” Clinton said. “You can do it on immigration reform, you can do it on these economic issues. You can do it on implementing the health care bill.”
But, Clinton warned, the issue of guns has a special emotional resonance in many rural states — and simply dismissing pro-gun arguments is counterproductive.
While some polls show that the public by-and-large supports several proposals for increased gun control, Clinton said that it’s not the public support that matters — it’s how strongly people feel about the issue.
“All these polls that you see saying the public is for us on all these issues — they are meaningless if they’re not voting issues,” Clinton said.
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.“I’ve had many sleepless nights in the many years since,” Clinton said. One reason? “I never had any sessions with the House members who were vulnerable,” he explained — saying that he had assumed they already knew how to explain their vote for the ban to their constituents.
Clinton also recalled threatening to veto a bill as Arkansas governor that would have prevented the city of Little Rock from instituting an assault weapons ban.
Clinton said that an National Rifle Association lobbyist threatened him over his veto in the state house, saying that the group would cause problems for his upcoming presidential campaign in rural states like Texas.
“Right there in the lobby,” Clinton said. “They thought they could talk to governors that way.
“I knew I was getting older when I didn’t hit him,” Clinton said. Clinton recalls telling the NRA lobbyist, “If that’s the way you feel, you get your gun, I’ll get my gun and I’ll see you in Texas.”
But he said that he understands the culture that permeates a state like Arkansas — where guns are a longstanding part of local culture.
“A lot of these people … all they’ve got is their hunting and their fishing,” he told the Democratic financiers. “Or they’re living in a place where they don’t have much police presence. Or they’ve been listening to this stuff for so long that they believe it all.”
Clinton closed his remarks with a warning to big Democratic donors that ultimately many Democratic lawmakers will be defeated if they choose to stand with the president.
“Do not be self-congratulatory about how brave you for being for this” gun control push, he said. “The only brave people are the people who are going to lose their jobs if they vote with you.”
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