The Oncoming Gun Debate: Grassroots vs. Big Money

The types of donors who write big checks to super PACs are writing more to the Gabrielle Giffords-led group seeking to influence the upcoming debate on gun control:

Until now, the gun lobby’s political contributions, advertising and lobbying have dwarfed spending from anti-gun violence groups. No longer. With Americans for Responsible Solutions engaging millions of people about ways to reduce gun violence and funding political activity nationwide, legislators will no longer have reason to fear the gun lobby.

On the other hand, the NRA faced enormous public pressure to cave to gun control forces in the wake of Sandy Hook, stayed silent for a week and then botched their first public statement after the massacre, and then added 100,000 new members in the ensuing weeks.  That’s 100,000 new NRA members in a month when the political environment should have been driving people away from the organization.  That doesn’t count what people within the NRA call “psychic members” – people who claim NRA membership due to an enthusiasm of the organization’s ideals but don’t chip in the $25 membership fee.

Speaking of that membership fee, some simple math means the NRA has raised $2.5 million of their own.  This week one donor gave $1 million to Giffords’s PAC.  While a handful of donors will likely raise millions at a time to support anti-gun politicians, the NRA will be able to raise dollars by the fistful from a much broader base of support.

If that model sounds familiar, you may be thinking of Obama 2012’s quarterly bragging that a wide base of small-dollar donors would trump Mitt Romney’s billionaire buddies (which it did).  Remember the Republican super PACs that tried to support Romney by spending huge amounts of money running constant TV ads opposing Obama’s reelection?  Remember how well that worked against Obama’s surgical GOTV efforts?  Exactly.

All else being equal, boots on the ground will trump money in the air.

The term “Astroturf” tends to be over-used in Washington.  But Giffords’ PAC is actually Astroturf: flooding money into the system to combat the organic political influence of 4.2 million Americans.  The NRA has a big idea (gun rights) and a big group of people who support it and are motivated enough to take action.  They’ll call their Members of Congress, they’ll talk to their friends and neighbors, and they’ll vote.

There isn’t a check big enough to buy that kind of influence.

Wait – Keith Olbermann made donations in money, too?

Former ESPN SportsCenter anchor Keith Olbermann’s suspension from his MSNBC post due to political donations has nothing to do with journalistic integrity.  In fact, neither does the policy NBC News has against political donations.

First, it’s worth mentioning that Olbermann giving coverage to people he donated to isn’t a conflict of interest.  These are donations, and not investments – he really had nothing to gain from two Congressional races and a Senate race in states where he presumably doesn’t live.  Arguably, the money he gave was insignificant compared to the airtime allotted.  If NBC wants to suspend him, or any host, it should be for the in-kind donations of coverage.

Olbermann admitted to making the financial donations, but he didn’t have to – after all, political donations are public record.  So the FEC can tell us exactly who Olbermann wanted to win.  Do we know that about Olbermann’s NBC colleague Brian Williams, or Katie Couric, or Anderson Cooper, or anyone else who say they’re giving us “objective” coverage of national issues?   The NBC ban on donations means they never have to answer those types of question – which is too bad, because they are worth asking.

You may not like Keith Olbermann, but you know where he stands – and if you tune in, you can take what he says with a grain of salt. It might be nice to have that luxury with other news personalities.