Do something is rarely a good philosophy for governing, especially in the wake of unusual and traumatic events. However, do nothing hardly fares better for electoral politics. And right now, Donald Trump seems to be one of the few Republicans to grasp that.
This past weekend's dual mass shootings in Ohio and Texas have reignited debates over gun control, mental illness, internet extremism, and domestic terrorism. These debates wax and wane depending on their proximity to these tragic incidents and their primary characteristic is their irresolvability. Thanks to the passions on both sides, the conversations inevitably and quickly break down into reductio ad absurdum allegations and maximalist demands from all sides.
The political environment in the immediate aftermath of these two shootings sounds very familiar. House Democrats have demanded that Senate Republicans take a vote on their expanded background checks bill, HR8, to prevent future mass shootings. Republicans point out that HR8 doesn't actually contain any provision that would have prevented either of this weekend's attacks. Gun control activists demand sweeping laws; gun owners demand the enforcement of existing laws first. All sides throw out statistics to show that these events are an epidemic or actually nearly non-existent.
For instance, it was only a few hours before one of the Democratic presidential candidates pledged to go door to door to search for and seize illegal firearms. Sen. Kamala Harris told the Washington Examiner that she would take executive action to do what she claimed to have done as attorney general in California. "We put resources into allowing law enforcement to actually knock on the doors of people who were on two lists," Harris explained. "Those lists were combined and then we sent law enforcement out to take those guns."
Needless to say, sending police to conduct searches based on government lists isn't just a concern for law-abiding gun owners or civil libertarians who care about the Fourth Amendment. It's a demonstration of how quickly gun debates go to the extremes. That kind of demagoguery amps up the temperature of the debate, which nearly always results in paralysis. Some small adjustments to statutes might get made and promises are made to more effectively prosecute existing laws, but the public perception is that this issue is utterly mired in stalemate.
That is the big political risk, and it attains to incumbents most. Voters may at times prioritize the economy, health care, and immigration as higher policy priorities, but the most urgent business of government is public safety. The more that mass shootings occur, the more they become viewed as potential threats to voters in a personal way, no matter how many statistics show that they're not occurring on a more or less frequent basis. When voters perceive threats to public safety, they expect office holders to do something, not explain various reasons to embrace futility, even if that something may or may not help the problem.
With a tough re-election fight ahead, Trump wisely chose to address the issue head-on and to reframe it around his own policy priorities. After a strange attempt on Twitter to link gun policies to immigration reform, Trump delivered a statement that focused on unity, bipartisanship, and most notably, the need for action. And he made it clear that despite the mutual support between himself and the NRA, Trump is willing to bargain to do something.
In this instance, Trump specifically endorsed "red flag laws" that would allow for gun confiscation under specific circumstances. In theory, these "extreme risk protection orders" would provide for due process to remove firearms from those whose mental health or prior violent behavior shows them to be an acute risk to others. The NRA and gun owners have consistently opposed these in practice as unduly confiscatory and lacking in proper due process protections.
It's not the first time that Trump has seen the need to act better than his political allies. After the horrific Las Vegas massacre, the Republican-controlled Congress bogged down on whether to ban the "bump stocks" that enabled the scope of the carnage, and gun groups split on the issue. Trump cut through the stalemate by ordering the ATF to withdraw its previous approval for the device, and then successfully fought challenges to it in court. Trump has also at times issued cautious support for expanded background checks, a very popular idea with voters, although with enough distance to keep a firm negotiating position on its eventual outcome.
The president doesn't risk much with a strategy of action. Trump's least popular when he's passive, which he knows, and his allies have nowhere else to go. After Trump's speech yesterday, the NRA issued a statement in which it "welcomes the president's call to address the root causes of the horrific acts of violence that have occurred in our country." They tiptoed around the "red flag" proposal by supporting the denial of firearms to "those who have been adjudicated as a danger to themselves or others," and heartily endorsed Trump's call for tougher mental-health laws that would expand involuntary commitments.
Trump's message got through to Republican leadership as well. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced the formation of a working group of Senate Republicans to deal with the issues raised in Trump's speech. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the group, announced his intent to work on red-flag legislation to encourage states to take up that enforcement, which Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) endorsed on Twitter. The group also includes soon-to-retire Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who has proposed expanded background check legislation and other bipartisan measures that stalled out in the past.
Action is Trump's default mode as it is, but this has obvious benefits for his 2020 campaign. Pushing for action puts Trump in position to compete with messaging from his potential Democratic opponents; if Trump gets legislation passed or succeeds with executive orders to advance these ideas, he can claim progress on the issue. It won't preempt criticism entirely, but he won't get caught embracing futility — a trap into which his party sometimes falls.