McConnell and Trump must agree if they want to pass gun legislation

Published 7:06 pm Monday, August 26, 2019


Guest columnist

In Louisville on Wednesday, President Trump said he would get, or help get, Gov. Matt Bevin and Sen. Mitch McConnell re-elected: “We’ll get them both back in.”

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Bevin was on hand, to bask in the glow of a president who has the approval of most Kentucky voters and whose support he needs to win a second term.

McConnell wasn’t around, because he was recovering from surgery six days earlier to repair a fractured left shoulder. He wasn’t at the Kentucky Farm Bureau breakfast the next day, either.

But the Senate majority leader might have been glad to have an excuse to stay home, because Trump had just been at his craziest yet — questioning the patriotism of Democratic-voting Jews; canceling a visit to Denmark after its prime minister rightly described as “absurd” Trump’s proposal that the U.S. buy Greenland; and giving very mixed signals about a payroll-tax cut and background checks to buy guns.

Trump’s antics would surely have prompted questions for McConnell at the breakfast, and the thing he likes to talk about least is Trump’s behavior — or any issue that could create space between them. He surely would have been asked about the president’s crawfishing on a substantive issue of immediate concern: gun control.

On Aug. 8, soon after the latest round of mass killings, McConnell told afternoon radio personality Terry Meiners of WHAS that Congress had to pass a law.

He said Trump had called him that morning, and “he’s anxious to get an outcome.” Later, he said, “What we can’t do is fail to pass something, you know, by just locking up and failing to pass. That’s unacceptable.”

Rarely does McConnell come close to painting himself into a corner. While he made no categorical, specific commitment, hearing him saying that anything must pass on such a divisive, emotional topic was remarkable.

McConnell surely would not have said those things without the same sort of commitment from the president. He needs to be on the same page with Trump, for his own political sake and that of the caucus he leads, and a Republican Senate is not about to pass a gun-control bill without leadership from the Republican president.

Three days before McConnell spoke, Trump said, “Republicans and Democrats must come together and get strong background checks.” Democrats want to apply the checks to all sales, or at least those at gun shows.

With McConnell’s comments, momentum built. Former McConnell aide Scott Jennings told NPR that the leader was trying to “align the stars for a process to occur where a law can be made.” He added, “We’re having a moment. We’ve been having one for a few years now. And I personally believe we’ve reached the tipping point of public opinion on it.”

But this past Tuesday, Trump talked with National Rifle Association President Wayne LaPierre and “assured him that universal background checks were off the table, according to several people familiar with the call,” The Washington Post reported. And in public, Trump became less favorable to the idea. For example: “We already have a lot of background checks, okay?”

Because he leads the president’s party in the Senate, McConnell has to be Trump’s partner. But on this issue, Trump so far looks like an unreliable partner.

Last year Trump called McConnell “one of the most powerful people in the world,” an unusual acknowledgment for the most egotistical president ever. He shares power with McConnell because he needs the leader’s advice on how to govern and deal with Congress,

My guess is that McConnell and Trump discussed the issue before Trump endorsed stronger background checks on Aug. 5, and that McConnell pointed out to him that Republicans’ recalcitrance on the gun issue was costing them support among a key set of swing voters, suburban women. He may have also made an argument that Jennings made:

“I don’t really like to politicize these moments because I think good policy is good politics no matter what,” Jennings told NPR. “But if you look through the raw lens of political strategy, if Donald Trump, a Republican president, somehow gets something done on this debate that has been stagnating for so many years, he can point to it, just like he did on criminal justice reform, and say, I could do this when Obama and other Democrats could not.”

That could expand Trump’s base, but the president seems more interested in pleasing and energizing a base that is too small to get him re-elected. He seems to fear the NRA, but he can also be intuitive about public opinion. In the end, he will have to tell Republican senators what he will sign, and he will have to be specific. That is likely to be a two-way conversation, moderated by Mitch McConnell. Both will own what happens — or what doesn’t happen.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s.