The NRA vs. Eric Holder

The rabidly pro-gun/anti-Obama group is pushing a wild theory – and intimidating some Democrats along the way

Published June 27, 2012 12:47PM (EDT)

Apparently, the House Republican drive to issue a contempt citation to Eric Holder will end up attracting Democratic support – thanks to the National Rifle Association.

Utah Rep. Jim Matheson, who represents the most Republican-leaning district of any House Democrat, announced on Tuesday that he’s “sadly” concluded that the citation is necessary, and Rep. Steny Hoyer – the Democrats’ top vote-counter in the chamber – acknowledged that other members of the caucus are considering doing the same.

Matheson didn’t cite the NRA in his announcement, but Hoyer did, and for good reason. The rabidly pro-gun/anti-Obama group has decided to use the Holder contempt vote as part of its rating formula for House members. For Democrats like Matheson, whose sprawling, rural district is filled with voters who take their guns seriously, being on the wrong side of the NRA in an election year is a serious risk. So it seems likely that political survival instincts will prompt a few others to join with Matheson.

The question is why the NRA has decided to emphasize the Holder vote. The group’s official explanation, believe it or not, involves conspiracy theory – the idea that the Fast and Furious gun-walking program that led to the death of a border patrol agent in 2010 was actually “a political attack on the 2nd Amendment and that the Justice Department facilitated a crime to further their gun control political agenda.”

That was NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre’s assertion, and it’s been echoed by several Republicans in Congress, including Darrell Issa, the Oversight Committee chairman who has been leading the contempt push. On national television on Sunday, Issa said:

“We have emails from people involved in this who are talking about using what they’re finding here to support the — basically — assault weapons ban or greater reporting. So, chicken or egg? We don’t know which came first, we probably never will.”

Needless to say, there’s no evidence to support this kind of outlandish theorizing. Not that this is anything new when it comes to the NRA and the Obama administration.

As president, Obama has taken a hands-off approach to gun control, not wanting to pick a fight with the NRA and potentially worsen his already shaky standing with rural white voters. This has been a disappointment to liberals, although not a surprising one, since Obama’s posture is consistent with the approach top national Democrats have taken since 2000.

But it’s earned the president no credit at all with the NRA, with LaPierre claiming that the administration’s first-term record is “a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment during his second term.” Others on the right have embraced the same rhetoric.

There’s a lesson in this: The NRA, for all of its claims of independence and occasional endorsements of Democrats, functions as an arm of the Republican Party. That means that no Democratic president and no major national Democratic leader will get the benefit of the doubt from the group, no matter what his or her record says.

As I wrote a few months back, this raises a practical issue for Obama and Democrats going forward. They’ve long resisted pushing for new gun control measures out of a belief that alienating that NRA and gun owners in general cost Al Gore the 2000 election. But the decade-plus since then has shown that the NRA will oppose and smear them just as feverishly even when they do nothing – to the point that the group is willing to promote a wild conspiracy theory if it gives them a chance to humiliate a Democratic president’s attorney general. Is there a point when Democrats simply decide that if they’re going to fight with the NRA it might as well be over something real?

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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