Look, I’m no fan of Howard Dean. Both as a candidate and as a potential President, he’d be about fourth on my list if I had to pick from the current candidates, after Clark, Edwards, and Kerry. I don’t like the way he’s been picking fights with the other candidates.
But when he said he wasn’t sure we really need a ban on “assault weapons,” he was telling the truth substantively and doing a smart thing politically in terms of winning next November. And when he said, in explaining his position, “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks,” he spoke an important truth, one that Democrats need to learn unless we want to be a permanent minority party.
For the Republicans to fight the culture wars is disgusting, in my view, and now that we’re fighting a real war that figures to last for a while you could even call it unpatriotic. But at least they have a bad exuse: the majority of the people in this country for whom the culture wars are a voting issue vote on the conservative side. Republicans have been winning elections for years by getting people who oppose their substantive policies to vote for them because those people find the Democrats so culturally threatening.
Some of that cultural threat is real: Democrats stand for the full participation of ethnic minorities (and in particular black people) and of women in the economic and political life of the country, and that implies some amount of cultural change. Moreover, though it would be nice to imagine that none of the gains for women and minorities will come at the material expense of white males — for example, in the competition for jobs — it’s not going to be the case. Some games are zero-sum.
Moreover, the Democrats are, increasingly, the party of the well-educated. We’re not going to run a candidate who says he disbelieves in the theory of evolution. That, too, is a cultural threat in a country where the majority of the electorate says it doesn’t.
But there’s no reason to add insult to injury. For a Democrat to deliberately fight the culture wars — as opposed to standing up for principle in ways that cause cultural strain — is just stupid politics, in addition to being bad manners. And “gun control,” as a political issue, is a culture-war issue. Guns are to the People for the American Way as drugs are to the Eagle Forum: a material symbol of everything they hate and fear. And hatred and fear make bad policy.
The “assault weapons” ban, like gun registration, has almost precisly no value in reducing the rate of homicide with firearms. As a quick reaction to the fears of some big-city police departments that they were losing the arms race to the drug dealers, it made a kind of sense, but the banned weapons never accounted for any significant number of murders, and it’s not clear that banning them for purchase by people eligible to buy guns is necessary, or even useful, as a way of keeping them out of the hands of bad guys.
All that matters, if you’re trying to reduce the number of corpses, is how available guns are to people inclined to use them criminally, and the current exclusions on who can legally own guns do a very good job of picking out those who shouldn’t have them. Some fairly small policy changes to make life harder for illicit gun traffickers and the scofflaw gun dealers who supply them could make a modest but worthwhile difference in the rate of criminal gunfire, and the drive in that direction under the Clinton Administration (expertly quarterbacked by Susan Ginsburg at the Treasury) has largley continued under the Bush regime, even though the NRA is stubbornly against it.
Law-abiding gun owners are not the problem, and there’s no reason to pick a quarrel with them. Among the mistakes that cost Al Gore the election, his commitment to “gun registration” was among the most unnecessary. Every valuable thing that would come from a national registration system can be achieved by less intrusive means. So if Howard Dean has the nerve to refuse to chant Violence Policy Center mantras, good for him, I say. I have no reason to doubt that he would do most of the right things on the firearms-control issue as President, even in the face of NRA opposition. (The hard call will be on requiring new weapons to be test-fired and their ballistic signatures filed with their serial numbers, but since most gun owners have no objection to such a system the political cost of taking the pro-gun-control stance on that issue is small.)
And as to wanting to win the votes of the guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks, of course we want their votes. I’ve been a tough as anyone on the neo-Confederate wing of the Republican Party and the current President’s pandering to it, but Dean’s not talking about appointing as Attorney General someone who thinksthat the Union Army was committing aggression when it fought the pro-Confederate militias in Missouri, or appointing Dixiecrats-turned-Republicans to appellate judgeships. He’s talking about appealing to a group of voters who would be benefited by having a Democrat in the White House and who vote Republican in large party because they think — not entirely without reason — that the people who run the Democratic Party despise them, their lives, and their values.