I don’t really know that much about Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. I know that he was a popular governor. I know that he’s probably the most conservative Democrat in the Senate. I know he likes to appear in television ads with a hunting rifle. But where does he really stand? I’m not sure.

I noticed that he was very emotional after he met with the survivors and families of the Newtown Massacre. I think he made a commitment to help them find some solace and to do something to lessen the incidence of gun violence. The common wisdom is that a Democrat in West Virginia needs an ‘A’ rating from the National Rifle Association, but Manchin has decided to go to war with them. He’s running ads that ask his constituents to call the NRA and demand that they support criminal background checks for gun purchases.

I think Greg Sargent is making a little to much of this development, but it is significant. Sargent argues:

If it works, Manchin could end up proving that an NRA onslaught can be survived and even defeated, which could put some backbone in other red state Democrats going forward.

The problem is in defining what Mr. Sargent means by “works.” If he means that Manchin can challenge the NRA, get away with it, and embolden other red state Democrats to support gun violence control legislation, then we’ll be waiting a long time because Manchin doesn’t face the voters again until 2018. In other words, how would a red state Democrat know if Manchin successfully stood up to the NRA before we get the verdict from the voters?

On the other hand, if Sargent means that Manchin might actually get a background check bill enacted into law, I suppose that is possible. After all, that is the issue we care about at the moment. But it kind of presupposes that other red state Democrats will gain courage from Manchin’s example. They won’t be acting with any assurances that they won’t pay a potentially fatal political price.

That’s why I don’t buy David Hawkins argument, either.

[B]efore he can genuinely hope to win over any of the senators seen as persuadable, he’ll have to offer evidence that they, too, can survive the NRA’s attack ad onslaught.

So fighting his own rhetorical war now, with the argument that no law-abiding gun owner’s right to bear arms would be infringed on by more background checks, is what Manchin may view as the best way to help the larger cause.

Again, it’s really the former rather than the latter part of that argument that I don’t agree with. There’s really no way for Manchin to “prove” that he can survive the onslaught on the NRA’s negative ads until he wins reelection five years from now. But, what he can do is lead by example and show political courage. It’s easier to show courage five years out. Senators Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska have to face the voters next year. They have Mayor Bloomberg on their case. So, when they look at Manchin, they can perhaps see someone with the balls they seem to have misplaced and a strategy that might work for them, too. But they have no proof it would work for them. It seems easier to just dismiss Bloomberg as a big city ethnic mayor who doesn’t understand “real” America’s love affair with guns and ammunition.

That’s what we’d expect Manchin to do, too. But that isn’t what he’s doing. Other people know him better than I do, but I think he’s sincere. And I think he’s providing leadership and a good example. And courage.