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Do We Have to Choose Between Guns and Climate?

This town may only be big enough for one single issue movement

Ever since Alec MacGillis’s terrific piece about building a progressive answer to the NRA, I’ve struggled with a nagging question: If, as Alec shows, the way to move the ball on gun control is to embrace the issue with single-minded intensity—specifically, to attack opponents and bolster supporters, regardless of which party they belong to--then doesn’t that mean other issues will suffer as a result? And if that’s the case, don’t we first need to be sure that gun control is the issue we want to go all-in on, rather than something arguably more pressing, like, say, climate change? 

It turns out Marc Tracy was thinking similar thoughts. Last week he argued that New York Michael Bloomberg has his priorities backward. Rather than bankroll a national campaign to clamp down on gun violence and spearhead local efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change—levees, floodwalls, and the like—Bloomberg should take on climate-change at the national level and limit his gun-control agitating to the five boroughs. 

Alec noted in response that “Bloomberg has enough resources and bandwidth to push on both gun control and climate change–he has been doing the latter on both the local and global level.” But I’m not sure the relevant constraint is Bloomberg’s personal bandwidth so much as the political system’s. If you’re determined to punish red-state Democrats like Mark Pryor and Mark Begich for their vote against gun control, as Bloomberg clearly is, those are potentially two lost votes for, say, a carbon-tax in the 2015-16 session of Congress should Barack Obama decide to take a crack at it. Or in the 2017-18 session for Hillary Clinton (to pull a name completely at random). 

Worse, the damage doesn’t just arise from the loss of senators who opposed gun control but could theoretically support a carbon tax. It also arises from the members of Congress who support gun control, and who compensate for the political vulnerability this creates by doubling down on their hostility to climate-change measures. Take West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, whom Alec joined on a trip through his state in May. Alec reports that Manchin carried on at length about the “so-called EPA” before eventually easing his way to gun control when he faced voters. I don’t blame him. Being out there on an issue like gun control in rural West Virginia is hard enough. Being out there on two liberal causes célèbres seems damn-near insane. 

Now maybe someone like Manchin was never going to become a climate-change ally, regardless of his position on guns, given the importance of coal to his state economy. But there is clearly some subset of senators for whom it’s a closer call—and whose gun control vote could force them rightward on environmental issues. And, in any case, if climate change is truly the existential threat most of us believe it to be, why foreclose on the possibility of even a Manchin-esque conversion. If a carbon tax does come before the Senate in the next several years, it will almost certainly include massive inducements to coal-state senators—like a bailout of coal-miner pensions, and some similar payout to owners of mines and power plants. Who’s to say senators like Manchin don’t have their price? 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not squeamish about the logic of a single-issue strategy. Like Alec, I’m prepared to see Democratic senators replaced with conservative Republicans if it helps build a movement that eventually gets its way. I just question whether we’ve picked the right movement to nurture. 

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him on twitter @noamscheiber.