The Back Booth: After Highland Park, a Liberal and a Conservative Talk Guns

·10 min read
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Residents deliver flowers and leave chalk messages at a memorial for the seven people killed after a mass shooting at the Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Ill. Credit - Brian Cassella—Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

Welcome to The Back Booth, a weekend edition of The D.C. Brief in which we 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.

The country is still trying to understand how the pops on July 4 in Highland Park, Ill., were not the routine bottle rockets but rather bullets allegedly showered into a suburban Chicago crowd from a rooftop. It is merely the latest installment of how strategists in both parties are confronting the twin—but intersecting—issues of gun violence prevention and a crime surge. Both parties are still figuring out their messaging here, and early voting in some states starts in just 10 weeks.

On the right, Matt Dole is a seasoned hand who grew up a Democratic-ish home in Vermont only to become an Ohio Republican who can eyeball the ledger and make tough triage calls. He, quite literally, has consulted on hundreds of political campaigns at every level. He also has one of the most aggressive collections of political memorabilia in the Midwest, if not the country. (Need a “John Boehner of Township Trustee” button or Ohio’s election tally sheet from 1810? Dole’s your guy.)

On the left, Brad Bauman is one of the progressive movement’s favorite fixers, having served as the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ executive director and as a top aide to lawmakers from across the spectrum. His friends joke that he is fluent in moderate industrialist, pragmatic Front Line member, and progressive bomb lobber, all with equal proficiency. (Bauman also had to once deny that one of his Ohio candidates was using a body double in a parade. This is a weird business.)

Both are now consultants. The interview has been edited and condensed.

Elliott: ​​So, that was a July 4 I won’t soon forget. A mass shooting on Independence Day seemed to have shook a lot of folks—at least in the short term. Does this change anything in the debate over guns? Or was the modest measure as far as this Congress can go?

Dole: Any mass shooting is a tragedy and what happened is sad and discouraging. The politics of mass shootings is, however, largely unchanged by mass shootings. The policy question is simple, but the answer is complex, and I certainly don’t claim to have a solution: how do you maintain public safety while protecting law-abiding citizen’s rights? Democrats are seen, by folks on my side of the aisle, at least, willing—eager, even—to infringe on law-abiding citizens. Republicans, and the courts, aren’t.

Bauman: What can we even say anymore that hasn’t been said about the tragedy of mass shootings that have become a non-stop problem in America? By some accounts there have been over 300 of these shootings this year alone, and we continue to be stuck in a cycle of acts of terror, thoughts and prayers, anger and denial and then… nothing.

I agree with Matt, this is a complicated problem requiring complicated solutions, but the most fundamental and solvable aspect of that problem is my party’s conduct when we are in charge—leading and pushing and delivering reforms that will solve problems and demonstrate to the American people who our party is, what we believe in and our vision for the future. There is only one group of people who are capable of deciding that, and it’s Democratic Party leaders. If we can move past words and into action—on this, on inflation, on student loans, on gas prices, and on passing a law that protects the rights of women to bodily autonomy, then we win.

Dole: Shooting incidents devolve into an infinite loop where Democrats call for gun control measures that can’t pass judicial muster and then call Republicans names for refusing to submit. Then, having scored their political points, it becomes quiet until the next incident and we start all over again. Perhaps the compromise measure in Congress will, given time to work, have a positive impact. I’m skeptical given the chance for governmental abuse, but hope for the best.

Bauman: I don’t want to take away from Sen. Chris Murphy’s leadership this year in passing the first bipartisan gun control bill in a generation. I think everyone has become well acquainted with how difficult it is to move anything though the U.S. Senate, and I truly believe that the measures that he was able to negotiate will have a positive impact over time.

But this problem is larger than those measures can solve alone, and the American people know it. Now, I’m not interested in pointing fingers at Republican obstructionism anymore. I want to double down on something that will become a recurring theme with me: the need for Democrats to use political power even when they hold even slim majorities.

Dole: Oh, I do love the discussion about the party in power needing to do more with that power while they have it. Of course, with such slim majorities, there are “big tent” issues involved. Can you coalition-build—even inside the party—to get the votes?

This is only tangentially related but it’s interesting to me that the Democrats have seemingly chosen an all-or-nothing approach to their agenda. [Sen. Joe] Manchin signaled that there was an abortion bill that he would have supported, but the Senate chose to die on the sword of a nearly-all-abortions-are-legal. It’s interesting that people talk about a lack of compromise between the parties, but we’re in a world where leadership isn’t even willing to compromise in the caucus to get something. Through this lens, the likely solutions on gun control from the leadership are going to be beyond anything Republicans support, and even what some Democrats might support in the Senate before we even get to the obvious hurdle of the courts.

Bauman: Love that point, Matt, but do want to suggest that what you are seeing here isn’t an all-or-nothing approach, It’s a “do-something-real approach.” What do I mean by that? It’s an approach that is seeking to change the dynamic away from where we’ve been since the Clinton years. Since the 1990s, the dominant paradigm within the Democratic Party on governance has been one of getting the deal done at all cost. This paradigm was ultimately created by a failed belief that bipartisanship was a virtue in and of itself. Unfortunately, bipartisan incrementalism is only a virtue if both parties are invested in the government succeeding. If one party’s power rests on its ability to convince the American people that government is hapless and cannot address the problems that people are facing, then bipartisan incrementalism only leads to the passage of bills that are doomed to fail—ultimately so that the “small government” party can continue to win electorally by pointing out the failures of government.

Dole: I guess this is the classic political “chicken-or-the-egg” question. Through a lens of campaign politics, my take is that if congressional leaders aren’t going to have the votes, demanding the show vote that fails—rather than finding/ seeking/ whatever they determine is the best possible result that can achieve an affirmative vote—makes them look obstinate rather than committed to solutions.

Elliott: This has an overlap with crime, a place where the facts—or at least the perception—do back up the Republican talking points. The stats show violent crime is actually down in most places, but that didn’t stop Californians from booting their DA in San Francisco and the petition tally seems to have reached critical mass in Los Angeles. When you get to that point, do facts even matter?

Dole: Crime is not something that rises to the top. The economy is sucking up all the oxygen. Where I think the issue could play a role for Republicans is in the continuing peeling off of the traditionally Democratic coalition. African Americans, for example, are seeing that the Defund the Police and other anti-police efforts negatively impacted their safety most of all. The issue certainly had an impact in the Texas special election of Rep. Flores and could play a role elsewhere like in the Georgia Senate race.

Bauman: We live in a time of insecurity, and folks feel angry and afraid about a whole lot of things happening right now that just feel completely out of control. Look, I feel that way too. But let’s be angry and anxious over the things that really are out of control, like assaults on our democracy, Russia and China bending the rules of international order, or the broken supply chain, and not be hyperbolic about the things that aren’t like crime. We need to be especially careful when those things, like crime, have been talked about through frames and language that have been used for decades as dog whistles for racists trying to redirect anger and fear towards Black and Brown youth.

For every person on Fox screaming about how unsafe our streets have become because they think it will score political points, I wish there was one person talking about how seriously we should be taking the Jan. 6 commission, or what it means when the Supreme Court uses their power to take away a persons’ abortion rights, or when a state legislature gives permission to public citizens to put a bounty on their neighbors’ head for seeking women’s health services, or how white supremacists are unabashedly marching through our streets and running for positions of power that oversee our elections ahead of 2024.

Dole: I wish more people ranked crime as a top priority because I think this sort of response shows why it’s a good issue for Republicans. You’ve thrown out everything but the kitchen sink to change the subject, but voters have excellent BS meters for hyperbole, and they are absolutely angry over the correct things: inflation, gas prices, and crime. Voters are angry about those things because they hit where it matters most: at home and in the wallet. Homicide rates in many cities are on pace to pass the already astronomical levels of 2021. That’s not a gun control issue. It’s a police funding issue. It’s a mayoral leadership issue. It’s a prosecutors-refusing-to-prosecute issue. It’s a judges-letting-criminals-out-without-bond issue. The result isn’t highly motivated Republicans; it’s motivating the electorate to move to the right. The San Francisco DA was recalled. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ gambit for 2022 is to encourage voters to focus on the one-sided, partisan hatchet job that Is the Jan. 6 reality show? Hey, we’ll take it.

Bauman: I want to challenge you on this, since you glossed over my point about how conversations around crime have traditionally been racist: How does someone like you and someone like me have a real conversation about what is happening around public safety in which someone like you acknowledges the race-baiting is real, that it happens in these arguments and someone like me acknowledges that ensuring safety at home and in the community is a fundamental job of a government? That’s the sort of conversation that people crave.

Dole: The polling that suggests that crime is a growing top issue for voters shows that scare tactics aren’t necessary. People aren’t getting ginned up by Fox News, they’re looking out their front doors and seeing petty crime, violence, and murder on the rise right in front of them. ABC News reported that 12 cities broke homicide records in 2021. Fox News (sorry) reports that five of those 12 are on pace to set a new record this year.

The discussion on solutions is pretty straightforward. Reverse efforts to defund police, give police the training and equipment they need to do their jobs, keep elected officials out of the way and let the police do their job, charge criminals when they commit crimes—and, by the way, charge cops when they commit crimes, too, but let’s stop defining every police use of force as a crime; it’s just not—and reject the terribly unsafe concept that we’re dealing with in Ohio that the safety of the community isn’t a reasonable factor in setting bond.

Elliott: Gentlemen, thank you. This has been quite the lively chain this week.