The Colorado Recall, Guns, And The Green Lantern Theory Of Electoral Politics

For some time now progressives have been discussing the Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Power, the faulty notion offered by some commentators that if a Congress opposed to President Obama's policies refuses to act, it's Obama's fault for failing to persuade them. Since the recall elections that removed two Colorado state senators who had supported stronger gun laws from office, a similar line of thought has emerged, the Green Lantern Theory of Electoral Politics, in which commentators castigate gun violence prevention advocates for the loss of those seats even as the commentators acknowledge the electoral realities that made victories unlikely.

On September 10, State Sens. Angela Giron (D-Pueblo) and John Morse (D-Colorado Springs) were defeated in recall elections after being targeted over their support for expanded background checks on gun sales and a 15 round limitation on firearm magazine size. Some media commentators have described the election results as having major implications for the gun debate while downplaying factors on the ground that demonstrated that the election was less than a total victory for pro-gun advocates and unlikely to be a bell-weather for future elections.

In a piece for The Atlantic, Molly Ball does an excellent job of laying out those factors:

Democrats and gun-control advocates have come up with a number of rosy rationalizations to minimize the loss. Gun-rights campaigners failed to collect enough signatures to initiate two other recalls, they point out, so the victory was really mixed. The gun-control laws passed by the Colorado legislature remain in place, and Democrats retain control of both houses. Tuesday's recall was a low-turnout election with procedural irregularities that made it harder for people to vote. Both lawmakers represented tough districts, particularly Senator Angela Giron, whose district was Democratic but culturally conservative; she lost by 12 points, while state Senate President John Morse lost by fewer than 400 votes. All those things are true.

But Ball, after laying out all of these facts that made the recall elections unique, concludes that those realities “don't matter.” According to Ball, gun violence prevention advocates should have found some way to win, regardless of the difficulty of achieving that result. She concludes that “risk-averse pols” who “value survival” will back away from the issue, and thus “it doesn't seem far-fetched to think that gun control might go back into the policy deep-freeze where Democrats had it stowed for most of the last 10 years.”

Like the Green Lantern Theory of Presidential Politics, this line of thinking encourages putting responsibility on exactly the wrong people; while the theory of Presidential Politics blames Obama for the irrational actions of congressional Republicans, the theory of Electoral Politics blames activists for potential irrational responses of national politicians to state legislative elections featuring unique circumstances.

When confronted by a gun violence prevention activist with the reality that even the recall supporters backed expanding background checks, Ball responded that “panicky lawmakers are unlikely to make such a fine distinction.”

One Democrat who apparently does make that distinction is Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. In a statement, she said that the elections were “defined by the vast array of obstacles that special interests threw in the way of voters for the purpose of reversing the will of the legislature and the people.” On MSNBC, she pointed to the low voter turnout and the fact that Colorado voters supported the gun legislation passed earlier this year, and said she would continue to urge Democrats to support “commonsense reforms that the overwhelmingly majority of voters support.”

Indeed, legislation to expand background checks, which was narrowly voted down earlier this year, is favored by an overwhelming majority of the American people. Research shows that the efforts of the gun lobby have little ability to move elections for the House, Senate, or presidency.