Dem dust up in Maryland is a sign of things to come

Given what’s going on in the Republican presidential contest, I’m not going to pass any popcorn when it comes to Democratic infighting. I was amused, though, by this story from the Democrats’ Senate primary in Maryland.

The race is between Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a close ally of Nancy Pelosi, and Rep. Donna Edwards, who is running to Van Hollen’s left. Van Hollen argues, in essence, that he’s as much of a leftist as Edwards, but understands when it’s necessary to accept less than a full loaf, and legislates according.

To show that Van Hollen is insufficiently left-wing, Edwards has attacked him for pushing campaign financing legislation that would have excluded the National Rifle Association from a requirement to disclose donors. Van Hollen didn’t back the legislation out of love for the NRA. Instead, he was hoping that, by excluding the NRA along with the Sierra Club, he could obtain enough support to pass a bill that came down hard on other interest groups.

Edwards opposed Van Hollen’s legislation. She didn’t want the NRA to be exempt.

Seeking to capitalize on this difference, a super-PAC that supports Edwards ran an ad. It began by showing an emotional President Obama denouncing gun violence following the shooting of school children in Connecticut. Then, the narrator said, “Chris Van Hollen met with NRA lobbyists to craft a loophole that would let the NRA skirt a new campaign ­finance law and block gun control.”

Van Hollen’s campaign cried foul. It called the ad dishonest and illustrative of Edwards’ uncompromising and ineffective approach to legislating. There may be a a tension between these two criticisms, but they are pretty much what you would expect to hear from a politician under attack.

But here’s the kicker: the Obama White House called the ad misleading and the super-PAC removed it.

From the Washington Post’s report, I don’t discern anything dishonest about the ad. From all that appears, Van Hollen did meet with NRA lobbyists to craft a loophole that would have enabled NRA to avoid the requirements of a proposed campaign finance law. While this isn’t tantamount to blocking gun control legislation, that’s a possible consequence of making life easier for the NRA than it otherwise would be.

As for Obama’s tearful speech on gun control, if you believe the NRA is standing in the way of legislation that would reduce gun violence, it seems perfectly appropriate to use Obama’s words to illustrate what’s at stake. I don’t share Edwards’ premise, but I’m confident Van Hollen does.

Van Hollen seems to think the ad is unfair because he was just being a seasoned, pragmatic legislator, exempting the NRA out of necessity in order to gain the support necessary to come down on other “evil” organizations. However, even with the NRA exemption, the legislation failed in the Senate. Thus, Van Hollen shouldn’t pat himself on the back for being a modern day Henry Clay.

In any case, Van Hollen is free to explain why he wanted to exempt the NRA and to make this a basis for pitching his legislative acumen. By the same token, Edwards should be free to use the tale as a basis for pitching her uncompromising purity and arguing that Van Hollen is too prone to making back room deals.

What about the White House? It seldom misses an opportunity to use a major shooting incident as the basis for attacking the gun lobby. Clearly, it thinks there’s a link between NRA lobbying and gun violence. This was the pro-Edwards PAC’s point in using Obama’s words.

If there are fair use rules governing the showing of Obama grandstanding and exploitation of tragedy, I’m not aware of them.

It’s not surprising however, that Team Obama prefers the relatively cautious radicalism of Chris Van Hollen to the upfront radicalism of Donna Edwards. Nor is this dichotomy limited to a Senate race in Maryland. It’s also the essence of the Clinton-Sanders contest.

The relatively cautious radical will win the Democratic presidential nomination and, quite possibly, the Maryland Senate race (the polls indicate a close race). However, that faction’s grip on the party is slipping.

This creates a significant opportunity for the GOP, if it ever sorts itself out.