Last week the NRA revealed that it was going to be spending 2 million dollars on ads in swing districts on behalf of Donald Trump. There's nothing surprising in this since they very ostentatiously endorsed him last month at their national convention. But their first ad has caused a lot of people to scratch their heads in confusion. With all the controversy over mass shootings and the gun proliferation activists digging in their heels one would expect the NRA to focus on ... gun rights. But the ad is about Hillary Clinton and Benghazi. What gives?
If there is one membership group in America with a reputation for in-your-face, take-no-prisoners politics it's the NRA. After the horrific massacre at Newtown the conventional wisdom, even among members of the NRA executive board, was that the organization was going to have to agree to some compromise after years of total intransigence. Even they were shaken by the cold-blooded mass murder of 21 tiny six-year-olds by a mentally ill young man with an AR-15. But Wayne LaPierre held his ground and went to Washington and gave a stem-winding press conference in which he not only refused to compromise he took it a step further and demanded that the gun laws be loosened so that kindergarten teachers could be armed. And it worked. Popular gun background check legislation died along with all those babies.
But there have been many more mass shootings since then from college campuses to Planned Parenthood clinics to lone wolf terrorist attacks culminating in the horrific slaughter last month in Orlando. The frustrated Democrats finally reached their limits and staged a sit-in on the House floor to just try to get Speaker Paul Ryan to allow a vote on two bills, one for the background checks and one to ban people on the no-fly list from being able to instantly buy weapons. It was a cathartic demonstration of anger and desperation but there is little hope that it will make a difference. The Republicans are not willing to budge even though the legislation has majority support even among NRA members.
Those of us who've been watching this battle over guns for a while will remember that the last time the NRA was this unpopular was back in the early '90s. The movement to ban semi-automatic weapons had finally reached critical mass and when Bill Clinton came into office the banning of these guns was a central plank of the 1993 Crime Bill. The gun lobby considered the passage of that bill a massive defeat.
But they didn't take it lying down. Indeed, they fought back vigorously and were widely acknowledged to have been instrumental in the 1994 Republican takeover of the House for the first time in 42 years, often said to have delivered no fewer than 20 Democratic House seats to the Republicans. President Clinton said at the time, "the NRA is the reason the Republicans control the House" and the new Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote a letter to the NRA congratulating them on their success saying "As long as I am Speaker of this House, no gun control legislation is going to move."
But how did they do that when they were at a low point in their popularity? That's where the weird Benghazi ads come in.
This article by Robert Dreyfuss in The American Prospect in 1995 explained their strategy. They didn't run on the gun issue at all. Instead thy joined forces with the GOP and simply helped them with a massive $70 million worth of ads (in 1994!) amplifying their message. In one case Democratic Oklahoma Senator Dave McCurdy had voted for the crime bill knowing that we would incur the wrath of the NRA, a group of which he had previously been a member. But he was surprised by how they went about it:
What was crucial about the NRA's attack on McCurdy was that rarely, if ever, in their onslaught did the NRA mention the issue of guns. Instead, in keeping with the Republican candidate's strategy, the NRA bankrolled a campaign to paint McCurdy as a "Clinton clone." An NRA-sponsored television ad began with a closeup of an AIDS ribbon on a lapel, then pulled back to show that the person sporting the ribbon was none other than Dave McCurdy, who was standing behind a podium delivering a speech supporting Bill Clinton at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. The NRA also paid for billboards throughout the state reading: "No Clinton Clones. Inhofe for U.S. Senate."
"I wish they had come directly on gun issues," says McCurdy. "I think I could have won on the assault weapon ban with reasonable people."... But rather than give McCurdy and other Democrats around the country a chance to fight back, they simply ran ads thematically coordinated with Republican campaigns.
This lesson came about from a previous Oklahoma race in 1992 when they became involved in the race against Rep. Mike Synar, a very outspoken liberal Democrat and enemy of the NRA and other GOP-affiliated special interests.They worked with other organizations to run ads against him about flag burning and other issues but also ran against him on guns. It backfired on them when Synar fought back against the NRA as an extremist organization and won. They came after his again in 1994 by recruiting a Democratic primary opponent and helping him win with a whisper campaign that said Synar supported the banning of hunting rifles. A Synar aid is quoted in the piece saying "They were smart. It was like boxing ghosts." That primary election was an earthquake that foreshadowed the electoral rout that was to follow in the fall.
The kicker is that they didn't support that pro-NRA Democrat in the general election and a hardcore pro-gun Republican by the name of Tom Coburn won the seat. They have played this kind of hardball ever since.
So if you are wondering what's going on when you see NRA ads over the past few months that have nothing to do with guns, keep in mind what PR exec Victor Kamber told the American Prospect back in '95: "Unlike purists, they want to be effective. What they say is, 'We are using whatever the polling data show makes them vulnerable in their district.'"