The Newtown murders may seem like a tipping point that will inevitably spark new gun control. But nothing is inevitable if Republicans still control the House and the National Rifle Association still exists. Recognizing that sheer emotion is not enough to overcome those obstacles, the White House’s emerging strategy, according to the Washington Post, includes this possible gambit: “rallying support from Wal-Mart and other gun retailers for measures that would benefit their businesses.”
Conservative antennae perked up, with cries of “crony capitalism” ricocheting through their echo chamber. The Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis cited my July New York Times op-ed “How Liberals Win,” which detailed the history of corporations facilitating big liberal victories from FDR to LBJ to BHO. Or in Lewis’ interpretation, “liberals tend to win when they co-opt big business.” The Washington Examiner needed no reminding: its headline nervously foreshadowed, “Obama going for gun control with tactic used to pass Obamacare.”
They are right to worry. If Wal-Mart and other major gun sellers partner with the White House, the gun lobby would be divided between manufacturers and retailers, potentially neutralizing the airwaves and preventing the NRA – heavily backed by manufacturers – from positioning itself as the sole voice of gun-owning America.
Would Walmart go for it? It’s plausible. Unlike edgy gun shows that serve niche markets, Walmart needs to maintain an image with broad appeal, beyond those who dream of assembling a militia in their backyard. This is why Walmart previously partnered with Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns to establish security guidelines for hiring, training staff, and conducting sales that goes beyond what’s required by law. It's also why Walmart will participate in Thursday's session of Vice President Joe Biden's gun control task force, a decision the company made just hours after suffering criticism for saying it had a scheduling conflict. If the choice today is between Barack Obama or Wayne LaPierre, it’s no contest.
Seeing the danger of an Obama/Walmart partnership, conservatives are pushing the “crony capitalist” charge in hopes of rendering such a liberal-corporate alliance ineffective. To pre-emptively counter the push to end the “gun show loophole,” which permits unlicensed dealers to sell guns without background checks, Breitbart.com’s A.W.R. Hawkins writes: “[President Obama] is leveraging Walmart by showing them how they will benefit from supporting his push to cut off other avenues of gun sales. If effect, he's saying support this and more people will have to come to Walmart to get their guns. What he's not telling them is that he has to greatly reduce Americans' freedoms to do it.”
By arguing that closing the loophole is more about corporate profits than the broader public interest, conservatives may not only give Republican House members cover for inaction, but also stoke disgust among the left at the president’s embrace of liberals’ favorite business to boycott.
But is it a fair charge? Could a partnership with gun retailers actually backfire and undermine the argument for gun control? Is working with a special interest incompatible with working on behalf of the public interest?
Obviously not. Take the example of energy policy. Conservatives want more oil drilling. They say it will create jobs and enhance energy security, but of course, it will also make oil companies more money. Liberals want more clean energy. They say it will create jobs and enhance energy security, but of course, it will also make clean energy companies more money. Still, one of those policy directions has to be better for the public interest than the other. The real debate is which direction is better for the economy and the environment.
The question of who profits is only relevant if the goals of the special interest actively conflict with the public interest. If Walmart is poised to make more money because it is better equipped to conduct background checks than gun show sellers, it’s hard to argue the public interest wouldn’t be served.
Yes, the optics of building a liberal-corporate alliance are often terrible. President Obama never held a press conference standing next to the head of The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America bragging about their agreement to shelve ideas designed to cut deeper into drug company profits in order to maintain their backing for ObamaCare. Plenty of liberals still grouse that he didn’t try to shove a public health insurance option down the throats of the private insurance lobby. But there is a reason why ObamaCare passed, and ClintonCare, let alone TrumanCare, did not.
Still, any White House partnership with Walmart will bring friction with progressives. Some will worry that if Obama is partnering with the nation’s biggest gun retailer, it must mean he will prematurely compromise on the breadth of regulation. (The editorial page editor for the New York Times has already lamented that the ideas floated by the White House “don’t go far enough.”) Others may cringe since Walmart is the symbol of everything to hate about the American economy: low wages, union busting, outsourcing. Giving Walmart the chance to cleanse its reputation arguably sets back the effort to demonize the company, smash its business model and force it unionize.
The problem is we live in a world where the NRA is extremely organized, Republicans still control the House and several swing states contain significant numbers of gun owners. Meanwhile, Wal-Mart isn’t unionizing anytime soon and the iron is hot for gun control. Priorities have to be made, and compromises have be accepted, if we are to have action and not grandstanding. If Wal-Mart can help pick the lock of the House, and diminish fears that the government will snatch guns away from responsible owners, other battles must wait.
President Obama long understood that the strongest liberal coalitions include corporations. Conservatives know it too. The remaining question is if rank-and-file liberals will accept it.