The Back Booth: Why Democrats Need to Move Quickly on a Gun Deal

9 minute read

Welcome to The Back Booth, a weekend edition of The D.C. Brief. Here each Saturday, TIME’s politics newsletter will host a conversation between political professionals on the right and the left, pulling back the curtain on the conversations taking place in Washington when the tape stops rolling. Subscribe to The D.C. Brief here.

While history can prove incredibly useful in situating current events into trends, it also has profound limits.

That important reminder came through during The D.C. Brief’s conversation this week with two pros who have literally been in rooms where the history of this country has been rerouted. Chris Moyer has worked on the presidential campaigns of Cory Booker and Hillary Clinton, as well as for Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and a host of Democratic campaigns as a spokesman or consultant. But he got what he calls a “masterclass” in politics while working as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s personal aide, or bodyman. After a stint working for the American Gaming Association—think Big Casino—he launched his own firm.

On the right, Michael Short spent two presidential cycles and two midterm cycles at the Republican National Committee, eventually becoming its rapid-response spokesman. He did stints as a press secretary on the Hill, as a senior assistant press secretary in the Trump White House and as a senior communications official at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission under two presidents. In the private sector, he has worked as the media relations chief at the National Association of Manufacturers, the nation’s largest industrial trade association. He is now a managing director at a public affairs firm.

The conversation has been edited.

Elliott: President Biden was in Philadelphia on Tuesday at the AFL-CIO, road testing what sure sounded like an early pitch heading into November. The Wall Street criticism was surprising, coupled with Sen. Wyden’s proposal of a 21% surtax on oil companies’ profits. It seems like a lot of blame shifting is going on. If the economy remains issue one, does that work? I recall similar populist moments in 2010 and that didn’t end well for Democrats.

Moyer: The President is doing his best to minimize the damage in November. While the current economic problems are ripe for political attacks, hardly any of them are of the Biden administration’s own making. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was out of his control. We are still dealing with the effects of the pandemic-induced recession that was unlike any other recession in decades, or possibly ever. It’s going to take some time for the supply chain, the labor market, and prices to normalize. Of course, this is not helpful for Democrats who are on the ballot this fall. The President’s message identifies boogeymen—corporations and Big Oil—and this message resonates with voters across the political spectrum, even with a meaningful number of Republican voters.

Short: I happened to be working at the RNC during the 2010 election and you’re right: that playbook didn’t work and it was a bloodbath for the other side. There are some key differences between the landscape for that election and the one we are about to have. One is that a high jobless rate, like we had in November 2010, only affects a subset of people; the unemployment rate was over 9% on election day. Inflation, on the other hand, affects everyone: 100% of the electorate. Another difference is that President Obama had an average job approval rating that was only underwater by about 4 points on election day in 2010. Meanwhile, President Biden’s average job approval is currently underwater by nearly 4 times that.

Moyer: In 2010, even as Democrats suffered massive losses, we also saw that the quality of the candidates mattered—especially in Senate races. Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell couldn’t win even in an ideal environment for Republicans. Twelve years later, we’ll see if the partisan divide has reached the point where even extreme GOP candidates in places like New Hampshire and Nevada (and elsewhere) can win just because of their party affiliation.

Short: The canary in the coal mine is Democrats’ loss this week in a special election for a South Texas congressional seat that is 85% Hispanic and voted for the last three Democratic presidential nominees by an average of 16 points. But as bad as these (and other) data points are for Democrats, Chris’ point about candidate and campaign quality also bears repeating. Mitch McConnell had to wait until 2015 to become Senate Majority Leader because Republicans blew winnable races in 2010 and 2012.

The Fed looks ready on Wednesday to boost the rate by 0.75%—the biggest since 1994. [Editor’s note: They did.] That seems like it will hit kitchen tables pretty hard if they need to buy anything requiring borrowing. Coupled with the highest inflation rates in 40 years, this just seems like we’re in for a rough patch. What can Washington be doing right now? Anything?

Short: The problem with inflation is that once it takes hold, it is tough—and painful—to unwind. We have too many dollars chasing too few goods. So the Fed needs to tighten the money supply, and they took a big step in that direction this week by hiking interest rates 75 basis points. More hikes will follow.

Moyer: The Fed raising rates to tame inflation is the equivalent of Americans being forced to eat their vegetables. Prioritizing getting inflation under control through these rate hikes is good for the medium- and short-term health of the economy. Voters also want action to address inflation, but few want to have to pay more for a mortgage, a car loan, or other significant expenses.

Short: One way Washington can make the inevitable pain that will come from this more manageable is by enacting policies that will actually help bring energy prices down. Energy is, of course, an input for every part of our economy; when energy costs go up, price hikes for virtually everything else follow. Sure, the war in Ukraine has been a factor, but energy prices were skyrocketing long before Putin invaded thanks to bad government policies. One guaranteed way to make it worse is to go with that proposed 21% surtax on oil company profits.

Moyer: In the absence of many tangible actions the Biden administration or Congress can take to reduce costs in the short-term, they need to continue to show they understand the pain voters are feeling and keep driving headlines that show they are making every effort possible to put solutions into place.

It seems like the framework deal on guns might actually hold. Does it really stand a shot in the Senate, or is this just waiting until someone can spot a problem in bill language? You’ve both been in rooms where it seems something is possible only to see it fall apart without much warning.

Moyer: The longer it takes for this framework to become legislative text and then for a vote to happen, the greater the chance for something to go wrong and for the agreement to fall apart. Soft commitments from Republicans can quickly turn to opposition as outside groups and constituents back home have time to mobilize against a bill. We’ve seen this happen time and time again. For example, as Obamacare negotiations dragged on in 2009, opposition from the conservative grassroots was on full display through protests, and angry constituents at town halls over the August recess dominated daily news coverage and quashed any hope of getting a single Republican vote.

Short: The bipartisan Senate framework is incredibly modest compared to the usual fare Democrats put on the menu when gun control becomes a priority. As an owner of multiple firearms, I’m not bothered by what has been formally announced to date. There appear to be at least 11 Senate Republicans who support the broad strokes, more than enough to ensure passage if they all stay on board and every Democrat plays ball. So far, the NRA has declined to weigh in, giving the GOP members of the group some space to negotiate. That said, this will all come down to details that are still being worked out. I recall the grand deficit-reduction bargain struck in principle between then-Speaker Boehner and then-President Obama which fell apart after the latter reportedly reneged. Washington is full of stories like that.

Moyer: While it’s encouraging that even Senator McConnell appears open to supporting this agreement, he was also open to removing Trump from office after the Jan. 6 insurrection. We saw how that turned out; he did not follow through. So nothing is final until the votes have been cast. The quicker Leader Schumer can bring a bill to the floor, the more likely the fragile coalition will hold, and the bill will actually reach the President’s desk.

So, we had two Jan. 6 hearings this week, and the picture being painted is pretty brutal to see. That said, it seems to be a choose-your-own-reality story here, as I’m seeing very little persuasion coming from anecdotal conversations around town. Does this make a lick of difference to voters? Or will the 96 weeks between Jan. 6, 2021, and Election Day 2022 be so much as to make it a distant and faint memory?

Moyer: While it’s important to fully understand what happened on Jan. 6 and who was responsible for that tragic day, it’s never struck me as something that will move a significant number of undecided voters to support Democrats this fall. Establishing the record, as the committee seeks to be doing, is more useful for when Trump inevitably runs again in 2024 than it is for the midterms. Not only did the insurrection happen 17 months ago, but we’re still several months away from November’s elections.

Short: The hearings are unlikely to have much, if any, impact on the midterms. Voters’ minds are largely made up on the subject, and they’re increasingly focused on issues that are directly impacting them like $5-6-per-gallon gas. The Republican sweep last November in Virginia showed focusing on Trump just isn’t a winner when he’s not on the ballot—even in blue-leaning states. These races are going to be primarily about the economy and Washington’s failure to grapple with other problems. It will be interesting to see how the committee’s findings play out in the context of the 2024 GOP presidential primary and whether Republicans will have more of an appetite to cross Trump. Perhaps Republican primary voters will recognize that and seek out someone with less baggage.

Gentlemen, thank you so much for your time.

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