The last time Donald Trump publicly pushed for a big bipartisan deal, it ended badly for Democrats — with no action on immigration and their base furious.
They’re determined it won’t happen again.
Democratic leaders are working closely with rank-and-file lawmakers and activists, taking steps to stay unified on guns and avoid the kind of strategic lurches that fueled the failed fight over Dreamers.
So Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi are acknowledging that big-ticket gun control is probably a non-starter in Congress, given entrenched opposition among Republicans. Instead they’re working to seize on the mounting public outrage and press their advantage by stoking big turnouts to demonstrations later this month planned by survivors of the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
It helps that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting appears to have staying power, with polls showing stronger support for gun control and activists reporting a surge in grassroots involvement. Multiple Democratic lawmakers left meetings with student survivors last week convinced that the tragedy would prove to be a pivot point.
And unlike with immigration, Democrats aren’t feeling the pressure of hard deadlines, either to act on Dreamers or fund the government.
Democrats also know they can’t rely too much on Trump, who is already cozying back up to the National Rifle Association after calling for expansive gun control measures.
Still, asked if he is concerned about leaving gun-control backers as disappointed as the immigrant-rights activists were, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said: “Absolutely.”
“We are in serious jeopardy of raising expectations when the president has proved to give new meaning to the word ‘fickle’ when it comes to his positions on issues,” Blumenthal said in an interview. “If you fool me once, shame on you. If you fool me twice, shame on me.”
While Democrats aren’t counting on consistency on guns from this White House, they’re finding their own intra-party dynamic easier to navigate this time than they did on immigration.
In both the House and Senate, party leaders are pushing expanded background checks as a bipartisan rallying point while remaining realistic about the prospects for reinstating an assault weapons ban that continues to split the party and faces stiff GOP opposition.
Pelosi, the House minority leader, said last week week that banning assault weapons “might take longer” than background checks, calling for “the best package we can get done now.” Schumer, the Senate minority leader, led his caucus’ gun-control rollout by calling for stricter background checks and merely “a debate on assault weapons” — while acknowledging that some members of his caucus wouldn’t back a ban.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who signed onto his party’s assault weapons ban bill last week, contrasted it with expanded background checks, an idea he said “completely unifies us.”
And unlike immigration, which saw some liberal groups fighting each other over whether to embrace compromise, gun-control activists say they’re more interested in getting something done than clamoring for Democrats to embrace the most left-leaning idea on the table.
“There are any number of policy proposals that can save lives and are important to enact,” said Peter Ambler, executive director of the gun control group founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.). “The fact of the matter is that Congress has been so resistant to safer gun laws for so long that there’s a lot of work that needs to get done.”
Ambler echoed multiple Democratic lawmakers in describing gun politics as significantly changed post-Parkland, thanks in large part to the sustained presence of student survivors who have challenged Trump and the GOP on TV and social media. Democratic members and aides are praising the Parkland students for giving Democrats a helpful roadmap to speak with resonance about an issue with which they have long struggled.
“These students are on fire and they’re right. They’ve pulled back the curtain, they’re not afraid to say what is going on in this country, this is insane,” said Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.), whose district includes the site of 2012's mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
But Ambler and John Feinblatt, president of the gun-control group Everytown, also pointed to Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s November victory in the NRA’s home base of Virginia as a harbinger of a new era.
Exit polls in that race showed Northam winning 57 percent of voters who cited guns as one of their most critical issues, with Republican nominee Ed Gillespie getting 43 percent even after vocal support from the NRA.
Among the “political myths” dispelled by the Virginia gubernatorial race, Feinblatt said, is the perception of gun control as a political “third rail” and the notion of an “intensity gap” between pro-gun voters and gun-control backers less motivated to turn out at the polls.
Republicans, for their part, are unconvinced by Democratic claims that Parkland would prove more politically resonant than Sandy Hook or other tragedies. And they’re warning their rivals against getting over-confident about an issue that doesn’t play well in the red states where Senate races in particular will be fought during the midterms.
“Whatever actually happens is going to be a lot less than what they’re selling to their base right now, and that’s always a bad place to be,” one GOP strategist on Capitol Hill said. “You saw what happened to us when we over-promised on Obamacare. They’re putting themselves in that place for the second time in two months.”
Democratic leaders aren’t ready to make guns a central plank of their midterm campaign. But they say they’re already seeing it galvanize voters in a way that the fight to save Dreamers did not.
Voters sympathize with the undocumented immigrants brought here as children but with the Dreamers' program upheld by the courts, at least temporarily, lawmakers feel less pressure to reach an immediate solution.
With guns, there’s no way to predict when the next mass shooter will strike and how deadly the impact will be, Pelosi told reporters last week.
"The White House is saying on the Dreamers bill, ‘We can do it now, we can do it later,'" she said. "But with guns, you either do it or you don't do it."
Still, Democrats are wary of embracing the fight over guns in the same way they did for immigration — setting hard deadlines for action led to failure and caused a sharp rift between the party’s progressive and centrist wings, while fueling another round of disagreements about what the focus should be heading into November.
Democrats who are vocal about gun control predicted the issue will resonate in the midterms if Congress doesn’t take action before then. Inaction at the hands of Republicans — particularly with Trump having embraced ambitious gun policies — could allow Democrats to paint a bright contrast to the GOP.
"These kids say that they’re not going to stop," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) after meeting with the Parkland student survivors.
Democratic pollsters say it’s still too soon to know if gun safety will strike a strong cord in November. But they have seen a notable shift in voters’ views on gun issues after Parkland compared with other recent mass shootings — likely giving Democrats more confidence to press the matter in Washington.
More people are saying they back stricter gun laws and are hopeful that action can be taken to prevent future mass shootings, said Angela Kuefler, a Democratic pollster who works with gun control groups including Everytown.
In addition, there’s an uptick in Democratic candidates wanting to poll voters on guns. In the past she has had to fight to get questions about gun issues into campaign polling questionnaires. But in recent weeks, Kuefler said, she is getting polls returned to her requesting more questions on guns.
In the past, “It was not an issue people would touch. Both parties were a little bit scared of it,” Kuefler said. “I don’t know if it will hold but I’ve never seen anything like this.”