Pat Toomey and the battle for Pennsylvania’s center
Sometimes, you’ve got to give credit where credit is due. And right now, Sen. Pat Toomey deserves some. It’s late April 2013, and he’s about to get on stage as the first featured speaker of the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. For the first time in its history, he’s not a crowd favorite. That’s clear from the noises that accompany his name. There are some light cheers, some boos, and a lot of skepticism from the conservative crowd as his name is announced. And there are even jeers for Frederick Anton, the CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturing Association who sponsors this conference, as he tells the crowd Toomey’s not such a bad guy, after all.
“Pat Toomey deserves your support,” Anton, an elderly, energetic conservative tells the audience. “The scurrilous, vitriolic attacks on Pat Toomey because of conservative disagreement on this social issue are totally unwarranted.”
And when Toomey comes out on the stage of the Radisson Hotel’s dimly-lit, central ballroom, he’s greeted by the same cheers and jeers that accompanied Anton’s mention of the senator. His stature is somewhat hunched compared to last year’s speech at the conference, when he defended capitalism as a moral issue, and was praised the rest of the weekend for it. Just be looking at him, you can tell: This is not a position the Pennsylvania pol — known for his staunch conservatism both in politics and the private sector — enjoys.
He takes some time to get into the nuts and bolts of the controversy surrounding him. Though when he does, he jumps right in, telling the audience of his President Obama-supported legislation to expand background checks on gun purchases: “I lost. I get that.”
But his loss may result in a long tenure for Pennsylvania’s junior senator; the majority of U.S. citizens (and those of blue-shading Pennsylvania) are not as radical as Toomey’s Republican colleagues, who’ve turned their back on him in recent days, seem to be.
Now, instead of picking up the pieces, Toomey is playing the role of adult amongst far-right theorists who’ve infiltrated every aspect of today’s political spectrum, often turning decades-old, oft-anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about a global elite power system which seeks to poison and imprison humanity, into mainstream arguments. And though he lost to the crackpots, he may have saved his own career—and his greater conservative causes and priorities—in the process.
Two days before the conference, Toomey, who did not respond to PW’s request for comment with regard to this article, was losing. His bipartisan, watered-down gun control bill, which would have extended gun purchasing background checks, went down in flames amongst a mess of right-wing conspiracy theories and bloviating led by the National Rifle Association and talk radio. Both groups (and others) made a push to deceive the public that a gun registry was in the bill—perhaps correctly believing the public would not actually, you know, read it.
According to a PolitiFact summary of the bill, it would have expanded background checks from just federally-licensed dealers to Internet sales and gun shows.
“As under current law, transfers between family, friends and neighbors do not require background checks. You can give or sell a gun to your brother, your neighbor, your co-worker without a background check. You can post a gun for sale on the cork bulletin board at your church or your job without a background check,” noted a press release the senators put out. The only way your brother buying your gun would need a background check, according to the amendment, would be if you advertised it on eBay (or wherever) and your brother just happened to be the highest bidder.
The bill also added a 10-year minimum prison sentence for any federal employee who attempts to create a registry of gun owners in the United States. But such language was not enough to keep the right-wing bubble class from speaking out, and accusing those in favor of the legislation of exploiting recent tragedies.
Since the Newtown Massacre in Connecticut (and the massacres in Arizona and Virginia, not to mention daily shootings in inner cities across the country), state and federal lawmakers had been looking for a legislative solution to the murder problem in the United States. The key, it seems, to gun control legislation, is adding language that calms the nerves of Second Amendment advocates while keeping mentally ill citizens and violent offenders from easily gaining access to guns.
With that in mind, both Manchin and Toomey were the perfect duo to introduce the background check amendment. The bipartisan team were both from northeastern swing states. Republican Toomey’s state had been leaning Democrat in recent elections; and Democrat Manchin’s had been leaning Republican. Both had solid ‘A’ ratings from the NRA. Manchin, the governor of West Virginia before he took to the Senate, actually released a commercial during his 2010 campaign, in which he posts the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Cap and Trade bill to a target, and shoots it with a rifle.
Manchin and Toomey regularly hit the political talk circuit to tout their bill. They were parodied on Saturday Night Live, and, almost immediately, the right-wing Internet began a flame war to not just criticize the bill, but Toomey himself. Any restrictive gun-control legislation, it seemed, would be fought tooth and nail by special interest groups. No matter who they took down in the process.
“There has been a ‘falling out,’” read the beginning to an American Spectator story on Toomey from April 16th, “And? ‘It’s Huge.’”
The title of said story, “Senator Arlen Toomey” was reference to the late Pennsylvania Republican-turned-Democrat Senator Arlen Specter, a known moderate and thorn in the side of talk radio Republicans everywhere over his 30-year career in Congress. It told of the many conservative activists and Tea Party groups which would begin calling out Toomey on his so-called traitorous ways within the Republican party and conservative movement—and the treatment he may receive at the upcoming Leadership Conference.
In an April 11th blog titled, “What does a traitor look like?” on right wing forum Free Republic, blogger John Pierce noted, “Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania betrayed gun owners. He betrayed us by caving in to pressure from [NYC Mayor Michael] Bloomberg and the Obama Administration and putting forward a supposed “compromise” bill with New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin. That’s right. Senator Toomey’s co-sponsor in this supposedly ‘Second Amendment Protection Bill’ is none other than Chuck Schumer. That should be your first clue even before you read the bill.”
Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) even got a dig in against Toomey, an old foe whom Santorum did not support in 2004 when Toomey ran a close Republican primary campaign against Specter. In a “Take Action” email from his PAC Patriot Voices, he told supporters to call their senators and tell them to oppose the Toomey-Manchin amendment, falsely claiming the bill would create a gun registry, rather than strengthen the laws against one.
“The unintended consequence of this amendment will be the formation of a national gun registry, which would negatively impact a law-abiding citizen’s ability to own a gun – a right protected by the Constitution,” Santorum said.
Many less-than-prominent conservatives came out of the woodwork to rumor- and fear-monger. Even Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jon Papelbon went on local TV after the Boston bombing—which took place the same week as the vote—to note “Obama wants to take our guns from us,” a decidedly low-point in the American gun debate’s 237-year history. Toomey’s Facebook page lit up with angry comments, some of which implied that Pennsylvania’s junior senator and President Obama participated in oral sex with one another.
Larry Pratt, head of Gun Owners of America, went on CNN to declare that group was looking for someone to challenge Toomey in the 2016 Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Amongst those reasons Gun Owners of America opposed the bill, according to an op/ed written by GOA member Michael Hammond on April 13, is the “points on the board” scenario, in which conservatives worry that when something the president supports gets signed into law, the left gains more “points” than the right.
“He ought to be held politically accountable. The way to do it is in a primary,” Pratt said. “We’re going to look for a viable candidate and if we find one—” at which point host Wolf Blitzer cut him off to move onto another subject within the gun debate: Polls. All conducted around the issue which showed almost universal support for background checks.
“I’m not sure I believe any polls,” Pratt said.
As a member of the Gun Owners of America, he had no choice but to call the polls bullshit. That’s what you do when the numbers say 90 percent of the public is against you. Even if all polls conducted around the issue, by CNN, the Wall Street Journal, CBS and others, were off by, say, 20 points (which is inconceivable, unless all were part of a gigantic conspiracy, which is what some believed), they’d still find huge majorities in opposition to Pratt, NRA head Wayne LaPierre and other gun group advocates. LaPierre, who became a household name after going on a rant following the Newtown shooting, infamously noting the “only thing” that can stop a bad guy with a gun is “a good guy with a gun,” has also pushed conspiracy theories involving the United Nations deflating the U.S.’s Second Amendment.
One day after Pratt’s appearance on CNN, April 17, the ten percent of Americans who oppose background checks—like Pratt, LaPierre, and politicians like U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR)—beat the 90 percent who wanted them.
Fifty-four Senators, almost exclusively Democrats, supported the bill Toomey and Manchin wrote. That was an insufficient number to break a Republican filibuster, which has become commonplace during Obama’s presidential reign.
The only Republicans to vote for the bill were Toomey, Susan Collins of Maine and John McCain of Arizona. They were joined by Independents Angus King and Bernie Sanders—both of whom caucus with the Democratic Party. Four red state Democrats voted against the bill.
“On Wednesday, a minority of senators gave into fear and blocked common-sense legislation that would have made it harder for criminals and people with dangerous mental illnesses to get hold of deadly firearms,” wrote former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords after the bill was shot down. Giffords survived an assassination attempt in 2011, in which she was shot in the head. She additionally called Toomey-Manchin “a bill that could prevent future tragedies like those in Newtown, Conn., Aurora, Colo., Blacksburg, Va., and too many communities to count.”
Most senators who voted against the bill did not have an explanation for their constituents and avoided the media in the days after the rejection. But Pat Toomey offered a candid admission to the Times Herald in Norristown, Pa.
“In the end it didn’t pass because we’re so politicized. There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it,” Toomey said.
So when the senator stood before a crowd of proud conservatives in Camp Hill, many of whom believe the Republican party’s single key to success is remaining true to conservative principles, he had his work cut out for him.
The PLC, while an important weekend for Pennsylvania’s conserva-rati to mingle and network each year, is also representative of the bubble in which the Republican party finds itself today. The attendees here cheer and boo for things the average voter doesn’t think much of. The speakers get pops for their insulting impersonations of former Gov. Ed Rendell and jabs against deceased Senator Arlen Specter. I watched one attendee’s eyes wallow in sadness as I told him I didn’t think the U.S. would stand for an anti-gay presidential candidate, Democrat or Republican, come 2016. Hints of moderation are few and far between.
“I think in some ways, the hardest part about doing my job well is doing what I think is right even when many of my friends and supporters don’t agree with me,” Toomey told the audience. “And that does happen from time to time. And I think that’s a real test of character, because, honestly, it’s easy to do battle with your opponents.”
“I’m not going to try to convince you that I’m right and you’re wrong, but I want you to understand why I did what I did and there were a few reasons,” he said at the conference.
Amongst those reasons: He noted that Democrats had introduced legislation which was too radical by his standards—things like banning assault rifles, which was in place for 10 years beginning in 1994 with the help of former President Ronald Reagan’s lobbying efforts—and he had to get involved.
He also noted that he had supported similar legislation in the past, when the NRA supported it, too.
“I want to stress this is a measure that I voted for in 1999,” he said. “It’s meant to do one thing: make it harder for two classes of people who have no right to have a gun” — those being criminals and dangerous, mentally ill people — get one. But “times have changed since 1999,” he said, “and I was not able to persuade enough of my colleagues.”
And that national gun registry you heard so much about? It didn’t exist.
“We weren’t creating a new system, we weren’t suggesting any new criteria by which people who are adjudicated to be mentally unfit, there wouldn’t be any new categories,” Toomey said. “It’s just a matter of encouraging states to participate in the existing system that we have.”
And as he wrapped up the gun portion of his speech, he noted “this issue, I think, is probably resolved for now and I want you to know that I intend to turn my attention to my usual wheelhouse. I’m going to resume my focus on pushing back a government that is the main reason we have a miserable economy today.”
Toomey got an ovation then, and as he concluded. But gun rights were a common theme throughout the weekend, and many speakers used the same vile rhetoric when talking about Toomey’s bill that conservatives around the Internet had used before, and since.
“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of people questioning that [Second Amendment] right,” noted state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe at the conference the next morning. He argued that the Second Amendment “wasn’t put there so we could be duck hunters, or deer hunters, but so the American people could protect themselves…from tyranny. Isn’t that right?”
He additionally noted our liberty was “defended with the defeat of Pat Toomey’s amendment, the gun control bill.” Thich got an ovation. Then he touted his own bill—House Bill 357, named after the 357 Magnum—which would “nullify any future gun control measures” passed by the federal government. (Which is not constitutional.)
Days later, Metcalfe held his 8th annual Second Amendment Rally in Harrisburg.
A month after that, Obama gave a commencement speech at Ohio State University, telling those students they’ve “grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems. Some of these same voices also do their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices.”
Many conservative websites implied Obama’s warning college graduates about believing the conspiracy theories all the time was (drumroll) part of the conspiracy.
But what is the conspiracy, exactly? What do our leaders want? That depends on who you’re asking, and when. But the overarching goal, according to theorists: Control.
At it’s most timid, gun owners may be offended about having a background check with regard to something that is guaranteed in the Constitution. (As in, your rights to safety end where their feelings begin.) Those in the Daryl Metcalfe camp (if we’re to take his PLC comments seriously) are worried about the government, or governments, slowing moving toward fascism, believing an armed populace are the best way to stop that from happening.
Still, others think there’s a secret plan to enslave humanity and kill 80 percent of the population. And all the gun control groups and advocates (like CeaseFire, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and others) are in on it, knowingly or unknowingly, as noted by the picture to the right. On the Internet, at least, gun control opponents often use Holocaust comparisons and imagery when noting why the government is for gun control. Ironically, some far-right gun-control opponents often depict gun-control as a Jewish plot, and have used some of the politicians who push for gun control (Rahm Emanuel, Dianne Feinstein, Michael Bloomberg) as proof of that.
“[Toomey’s gun bill] was presented in a way by the critics to be way over the top, something that was out of character and not in line with past precedent,” says Pennsylvania political analyst and pollster G. Terry Madonna during an interview with PW, “when the fact of the matter is, in 1995, legislation was passed into law, a background check system that currently exists in this state. It was … signed into law by Republican Governor Tom Ridge, with the support of the National Rifle Association. If you take a look at that law—and I did—and you compare it to what the senator [Toomey] was trying to do, you’ve got to stretch to find a difference.”
Madonna’s polling actually found that in the wake of Toomey’s gun legislation saga, his approval rating went up within his home state. The reasons, Madonna notes, are obvious.
“What he’s doing and what’s he’s supporting is overwhelmingly supported by his constituents, let’s start with that,” he says. “A poll I just did two weeks ago: 89 percent support. A poll I did in February: 93 percent; a majority of people in all regions of the state and in every demographic category. The question is not, ‘Is what Pat Toomey’s doing responsive to the will of the electorate?’ It is.”
And his almost-lone representation of his own electorate on this one issue has led more moderate publications to profile the Senator as, perhaps, the face of the blue-state GOP.
Toomey is not a constitutional scholar. It’s something he’s admitted on several occasions. Rather, he made his fortune in the private sector, on Wall Street, and headed up the conservative Club For Growth, a right-wing economic nonprofit pushing for less government regulation of the private economy and rating systems for current U.S. Senators, based upon their fiscal records. It’s what led him to give a speech at least year’s conference highlighting the inherent goodness of capitalism.
It’s also what led the Philadelphia City Paper to release a cover story a week before the November 2010 election, titled, “66 Reasons Not to Vote for Pat Toomey.” That listicle’s reasons were split into several categories depicting Toomey as an economic monster of the right. The categories included, “Toomey and Wall Street,” “Toomey and Reality,” “Toomey and Fiscal Responsibility,” and others. Among the 66 reasons, CP only chose one involving his stance on gun rights, and it was about his vote to decrease the waiting period from three days to one, and his ‘A’ rating from the NRA.
Last summer, Philadelphia Magazine released a profile of Toomey, the headline of which called him “surprisingly moderate,” and was a bit misleading when compared to the text of the article. The author’s approach in that regard was more that Toomey seemed moderate in his ability to speak soberly on issues (and that, unlike lots of Republicans, he’s willing to work with Democrats). The author said he found himself nodding to Toomey’s points during an initial meeting.
This was something I, too, had noticed at the 2012 PLC, in which Toomey’s speech and demeanor were so pleasant and comfortable, it took re-listening to his speech in my hotel room to realize he was just spouting right-wing talking points. But that’s what a career giving speeches to business leaders, raising money and eventually wooing enough constituents to become a U.S. Senator requires.
Toomey is not moderate. A 2012 rating of most conservative members of the U.S. Senate by the National Journal put Pat Toomey at 4th in the country—with a 92.8 conservative score. He was behind only Jim DeMint of South Carolina (who now heads the Heritage Foundation), John Cornyn of Texas and James Risch of Idaho—and he was a mere three points away from Risch’s score. Those rankings were calculated based upon roll call votes put forth by individual members. Not their rhetoric.
The also surprisingly moderate Bob Casey (D-PA) receives a 63.7 score from the magazine, which is more moderate than Toomey, but not as conservative as he has often markets himself.
But as both Casey and Toomey are examples, being moderate and portraying moderation are two different things, and only one’s required to succeed in Pennsylvania.
Toomey turned heads during the 2012 State of the Union address on this issue, too, when he invited State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D-Philadelphia) as his guest. Many at the time assumed their partnership, other than a personal one, had to do with Williams’ support of charter schools and school voucher education, which is a conservative cause. However, Williams confirmed to PW that the two did converse with regard to the gun issue (though he did not get into details), which Williams has taken on, repeatedly, throughout his years in Harrisburg.
“He probably mentioned [gun control legislation] in passing, and I listened to it,” Williams says. “He didn’t go into details and I didn’t intrude upon it. After people were trying to protest in front of his office, then I got more involved.”
Williams still commends the Pennsylvania Republican on the action he took in Congress.
“I think it was a responsible thing for him to do,” says Williams. “You have a reference place from where you come, if you will, a certain set of values, but if you listen to where a majority of people are, it will probably fit into your value system someplace. And so I think he listened very effectively, and I think he’s a strong leader, and an effective leader. I think he was smart to understand where Pennsylvania is and where the nation is, and it was something we had to address.”
Williams is part of a handful of Pennsylvania Senate Democrats who has offered a series of bills which would, among other things, create a gun registry in Pennsylvania—which is where the two disagree.
“He doesn’t come across as shrill, hyperbolic or difficult. He’s takes a reasonable, reasoned approach and, where he can, he’ll find common ground,” adds Madonna. “I’ve never heard either of them [Toomey or Casey] talk about someone else’s personality or lecture somebody else about what they should do or should not do.”
Sure. He’s no Ted Cruz, I add.
“Or Rick Santorum!” he says back.
So, it should come as no surprise that as the Republican party has become increasing unpopular in the commonwealth, with a large majority of voters taking an “anyone but Corbett” approach to the 2014 gubernatorial election, Toomey’s approval numbers have actually risen in recent months.
Makes sense, says Sgt. Robert Allen Mansfield, a Philadelphia Republican who ran for Congress in Pennsylvania’s 2nd District last year.
“He doesn’t compromise principles. He makes compromises but never compromises his principles,” says Mansfield. “You know where I am with the my way or the highway stuff: It puts people in bad positions they don’t want to be in. People were saying they’d never vote for [Toomey] again—and they hadn’t even read the legislation.”
Despite his efforts on social issues, Mansfield doesn’t think Pennsylvania can do any better than the Republican.
“Toomey is the best Republican senator we’ve had since John Heinz,” he continues. “Who else can go into a room with the Black clergy, take all the darts, all the fire, for hours, and have the Black clergy come out and say, ‘we can work with this guy’? He’s a traditional, grown-up, conservative.”
Despite the boos at the PLC, I can’t find a single attendee who will tell me, on the record, that they no longer support Toomey. He said he’s going to re-focus on his “wheelhouse,” says one attendee, “and that’s good enough for me.”
Stan Bialecki, a committee person at the Lehigh Valley Tea Party, says he’s still a supporter of Pat Toomey.
“I think his intention was good, but I don’t think his timing was right,” Bialecki, a bearded, skinny man with a blue baseball cap on, says. “We didn’t want that bill, as conservatives”—and he notes he would not support a bill like that if it came up again.
“Everybody respected that he was trying to move forward and find compromise,” says Tim Barr, vice president of Evaluator Services and Technology in Middletown, PA, in Camp Hill for the conference. “The concept of background is good; the concept of a registry is very bad. And he made clear in his presentation that, in fact, it would be a felony for anyone to start compiling a database. I didn’t know that was part of it.”
Barr noted he’s still a Toomey supporter.
“This is one issue. I don’t think [the gun issue] is going to have a long-term effect. And his parting comment yesterday, that he was going to return to his wheelhouse, which is economic issues, and people respect what he’s done in that area and what he hopes to do.”
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