Triangulation isn’t dead after all. As calls rise for congressional action in the wake of two mass shootings over the weekend, Donald Trump is doing his best to stay ahead of the curve. Before Trump boarded Marine One on the first leg of his travels to Dayton and El Paso, he endorsed the idea of expanded background checks for gun purchases and promised to “do something” about hate groups:
“I’m looking to do background checks. I think background checks are important.”
Ahead of visits to Ohio and Texas, Pres. Trump speaks on Congress' “political appetite” for various gun reform proposals, while promising to "do something" about hate groups. https://t.co/4S7jersyjP pic.twitter.com/FD1QXyEpu6
— ABC News (@ABC) August 7, 2019
Asked about gun control efforts, Trump said he’s “looking to do background checks … they’re important,” claiming there’s “great appetite for background checks.”
“I’ll be convincing some people to do things that they don’t want to do … I have a lot of influence with a lot of people and I want to convince them to do the right thing … we’ve made a lot of headway in the last three days,” he said, apparently referring to consultations with GOP congressional leaders as he and they face pressure to act in the face of the latest shootings.
That’s a significant concession, especially combined with Trump’s rhetorical support for red-flag laws in his Monday speech. The NRA has been one of Trump’s most stalwart allies, but it has serious skepticism about legislating either the red-flag laws or expanded background checks. Trump’s public support for both won’t necessarily reduce criticism from Democratic leaders who are calling for a new assault-weapons ban, but it does show a willingness to bargain and move proactively.
That has its limits with the assault-weapons and capacity bans Democrats demand — for the moment, anyway. Trump told the media that there wasn’t an “appetite” for such legislation in the same way there is in addressing mental-health issues:
At the same time, Trump appeared to downplay any effort to restrict or ban assault weapons or high-capacity ammunition magazines of the kinds used in the shootings, saying there’s “great appetite to do something to make sure that mentally unstable, seriously ill people aren’t carrying guns … I have not seen it in regard to certain types of weapons.”
What happens if there is an appetite to ban various kinds of semi-automatic rifles? That’s not a particularly active denunciation of a renewed assault-weapons ban, gun owners are sure to notice. Trump’s position on that point seems to be that he’ll wait to see where Congress goes and then decide whether to get in front of that, too.
That could call into question Trump’s true commitment to Second Amendment issues, but in my column at The Week, I argue that Trump’s more tuned in to the moment than most other Republicans. People elect presidents to act, not to explain away inaction, and Trump wants to shape that debate:
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. …
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.
Do something can be a very dangerous governing philosophy, an issue that has to be kept in mind. Nevertheless, do nothing is usually a disastrous electoral policy, which Trump knows better than most. Bill Clinton understood it too, which was the point of his triangulation strategy — a way to score legislative victories while his opponents controlled the legislative levers. In that effort, Clinton was able to get Republicans to compromise on the scope of their proposals by forcing them to deal with his veto power. It worked then, and Trump must think that it’s the only way through this crisis, too. He’s almost certainly correct, but his allies need to make sure that triangulation doesn’t lead to abject surrender, too.