Political Chat: Gun Control And The Senate

The debate over gun control continues to dominate the headlines. Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate doubles the number of African-American members by welcoming William 'Mo" Cowan. He replaces John Kerry. Host Michel Martin talks politics with Republican strategist Ron Christie and Keli Goff, political correspondent for The Root.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we are kicking of Black History Month by heading to the skies - or at least bringing you a story about somebody who did. He's a young man who went from playing a flight simulator on his computer to becoming the youngest man to fly solo around the world. He will tell us how and why he did this in just a few minutes.

But first we want to get the latest on the political news making headlines this week, in particular the debate over gun control to the new faces in the U.S. Senate. Joining us to give us their thoughts are two of our trusted political observers. Keli Goff is a political correspondent for TheRoot.com. And Ron Christie is a Republican strategist and a former aid to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

RON CHRISTIE: Always a pleasure.

KELI GOFF: Great to be back.

MARTIN: So let's start with the gun control debate. Keli, we keep hearing uphill fight in Congress, uphill fight in Congress to get anything passed. So President Obama is going on the road to make the case. Today he's in Minnesota meeting with law enforcement officials there to talk about his proposals to curb gun violence.

I wanted to ask, how effective do you think this campaign-style approach will be in moving votes on this issue?

GOFF: Well, probably not as effective as the NRA's appearances in the media. And to be clear, I don't mean that the NRA's appearances in the media are being an effective strategy for those who oppose gun control; I think they're actually helping those who support gun control. I think that every time that Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, spokesperson who goes on the air and puts his foot in his mouth, I think that what was once seen as a completely unrealistic possibility becomes ever more possible.

Which is the likelihood of actually getting some of these gun control measures, like the assault weapons ban, passed.

MARTIN: OK.

GOFF: And I'll give you a quick instance, which is Chris Wallace.

MARTIN: Well, let me stop - OK. I have that clip. So let me play that clip.

GOFF: OK.

MARTIN: And then you can talk a little bit more about it. Here it is for people who missed it. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY")

WAYNE LAPIERRE: The point of that ad was this. It wasn't picking on the president's kids. The president's...

CHRIS WALLACE: Well, it mentions them.

LAPIERRE: The president's kids are safe and we're all thankful for it. The point of that ad...

WALLACE: They also face a threat that most children do not face.

LAPIERRE: Tell that to the people of Newtown. Tell that to the people...

WALLACE: Do you really think that the president's children are the same kind of target as every school child in America?

LAPIERRE: I think...

WALLACE: That's ridiculous and you know it, sir.

MARTIN: He's talking about this ad that the NRA put up very shortly after the Newtown shooting that suggested - that asked why the president's children had armed security at school and other American kids did not. So Keli, you're saying that that's just not helpful.

GOFF: It's not. And it's not the only interview that he's done that hasn't been helpful. And it's not the only interview that anyone who opposes gun control, who is considered a spokesperson - we all know the infamous Piers Morgan interview - that has simply not been helpful. And so I'm seeing sort of tonal shift, Michel, where it's sort of like there are people who started saying, look, we have the Second Amendment.

I have the right to my arms. The government better stay out of my business. And then it's a little bit like what happened with the health care debate, where people who may have been on the fence start thinking, you know, I wasn't sure I was with the president but I know I'm not kind of with the crazies. Like the people who were ripping up the Rosa Parks posters during the health care debate.

And if you can get enough of those people who are like I'm not sure where I am but I know I don't want to be associated with crazy to agree, that can sometimes be enough. And I kind of sense that that's what's happening in this debate.

MARTIN: OK. Let's ask Ron about this. And just to Keli's point, there was also another ad which actually aired during the Super Bowl - only in limited markets, it has to be said - but which was funded by a foundation that New York City mayor, Mayor Bloomberg, supports, that showed footage of the same Wayne LaPierre of the NRA on the record saying he supported universal background checks for gun purchases in 1999 but then for some reason now he's - he was - he's against it now.

So Ron, I'm going to ask you this, particularly as a person who once worked in the executive branch. Going back to the question about the president, you know, you always hear about - particularly people in the executive branch saying they're going over the heads of the Congress. They're going over the heads of the media. They're taking their case directly to the people. Has that ever worked?

CHRISTIE: Well, I think it has, although I don't think it's worked for the last two administrations. I think President Bush immediately after his reelection went to the American people to try to sell his Social Security reform in a campaign style manner and it didn't work. And I think President Obama is similarly going out on the road with his campaign style events dealing with gun control. I don't think that's ultimately going to work.

Let me go back to something that Keli said a second ago. I'm a huge fan of the NRA. I believe in their mission. I believe what they're doing, although Wayne LaPierre has to be the wrong messenger for this fight. The president's kids are off limits. The president's kids should be off limits. The president's children should have nothing to do with this political discourse that we're having on controlling certain types of firearms and ammunition.

And for him to bring the first family into this I think is so outrageous. And for those of us who are conservatives, we need to stand up and say what's right is right and what's wrong is wrong, and what he did was wrong. I think it's shifted the debate and I think, frankly, it's reprehensible to try to bring the president's kids - and I'm glad that Chris Wallace shut him down the other way.

MARTIN: What about that other - the other ad I was talking about, the Mayors Against Illegal Guns debuted this ad during the Super Bowl this weekend and once again, it played only in Washington, D.C., but obviously people like us are playing it again for people who didn't hear it. Let me just play a short clip, and then, Ron, I'll ask you about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: The NRA once supported background checks.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We think it's reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere for anyone.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: America can do this - for us. Please.

MARTIN: Ron, what about that?

CHRISTIE: I think it's a very powerful ad. I believe in Mayor Bloomberg's First Amendment right to speech. It seems like he's got an opinion on just about everything and how to regulate everyone's lives. But who's not in favor of a universal background check? I mean, again, I...

MARTIN: The NRA.

CHRISTIE: Exactly.

MARTIN: Today.

CHRISTIE: I am in favor...

MARTIN: As opposed to in 1999.

CHRISTIE: Yeah. I'm in favor of the Second Amendment, but you reach a certain point where if we can keep the weapons out of people who should not have them, be it a criminal background or some other blip on their record, why wouldn't you be in favor of that? That position to me doesn't make sense.

MARTIN: Keli Goff, game changer or not, this - because I have to be honest, I remember - I had completely forgotten about that testimony, which I know I saw.

GOFF: Right. Well, I actually think that this ad is less of a game changer than, again, the foot in mouth disease of the ad attacking the first family, which, you know, Ron reacted strongly too like a lot of other conservatives I have heard. Because what I think is happening, Michel, is, look, I've said this before on your show and I'll say it again: There is not a single American who does not support - including gun owners, and I'm from Texas - who support some form of gun control.

Right? You ask them do you think Osama bin Laden after the World Trade Center attacks should have been able to walk into a store and say I'd like to purchase a bunch of firearms today, and there's not a single American who would say yes. The question has always been how much. And the problem is people like Wayne LaPierre, when they released the ad attacking the Obama kids, is that they take people who might have been open to their argument and they push them further in the president's camp.

So I actually think that that ad might've been more effective in winning gun control support than the NRA had hoped.

MARTIN: We're talking with Keli Goff and Ron Christie. We're talking about the gun control debate and other political news of the week. Just very briefly, the White House - Ron, I'll ask you this - attempted to settle this debate about people who say, well, you don't know anything about guns, so that's where you have no credibility on this.

And the White House released a photo of the president skeet shooting, and that was some time ago. This was not recent. That's what they tell us. So, Ron, good idea, bad idea?

(LAUGHTER)

CHRISTIE: Bad. It was a stupid idea.

MARTIN: Because?

CHRISTIE: Look, you know, for having worked in the White House, you always want to manage the message. And the message is putting the president, obviously, and his policies out in the best foot forward. Digging up some obscure shot of the president skeet shooting and then juxtaposing that with the president saying he skeet shoots all the time seems to be a conflicting message.

No one's ever heard of him out shooting around Camp David. He doesn't even like going to Camp David. So now we're talking about the president in this photo as opposed to the president and the policies he's seeking to advocate with gun control. I think it was a mixed message and one that they stepped on.

MARTIN: Well, OK. So let's just, briefly in the time that we have left, two - well, there's a new senator on the Hill this week. William "Mo" Cowan was selected by Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick to replace John Kerry, who's taken over as secretary of State. That means we now have two African-American senators joining - he's joining Tim Scott, who was also appointed to his seat in South Carolina.

So Keli, very briefly - because I want to hear from both of you on this, how significant is this? We now, I think, for the first time in history, we have two African-American...

GOFF: That's right. It is. We have two...

MARTIN: ...senators serving at once.

GOFF: Two at once. It obviously would be more exciting when we can actually elect two African-American senators at once, but this shouldn't be, you know, undervalued. It's a momentous occasion. I had a chance to interview Michael Goldman, a political consultant out of Boston who's worked with Mo, and to me the most exciting thing he said about this is that Governor Patrick has always been someone who wants to help create future generations of black leadership, and that's what, to me, is significant. Mo's very young. He's 43. So that's what I think is really cool about this and looking forward to seeing what both of them do.

MARTIN: Yeah. This is something - Ron, I have to say that isn't this something that conservatives have been good at for a long time - is looking down - you know, playing the long ball, trying to invest in people early in their career so that they have a chance to be effective over the long term. And I wonder if you see this in the same way.

And I also have to ask - to Keli's point - does it diminish the achievement in any way that these are both two appointed individuals and the fact that Tim Scott isn't terribly interested in associating with or identifying with, you know, the African-American experience per se. He just explicitly declined to join the Black Caucus, for example. Does any of that matter?

CHRISTIE: Yes, it does. Let me unpack this a little bit. I think it's a historic opportunity. Their votes count as much as any other member of the Senate casting a ballot, and it is great to inspire the young people, to see that you have a president of the United States who is sitting at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue and you have two African-American senators who are on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. I think it's fantastic.

I think that what you're going to find is that Republicans do play the long ball. We are seeding the field. I think Tim Scott will win election in his own right in the Senate and I hope that we have other African-Americans on both sides of the political aisle who run and win office.

I think it's very important for this country to have the diversity of not only our citizens, but of people of different ethnicities.

MARTIN: It's particularly important that they represent the two major political parties. Do you feel that that's something particularly important, kind of as a message?

CHRISTIE: Very much so.

MARTIN: The fact that they're not elected doesn't...

CHRISTIE: It doesn't diminish it to me.

MARTIN: Diminish it to you?

CHRISTIE: It doesn't diminish it to me in the short term, but over the long term I think we would all agree that both parties need to do a better job of recruiting candidates of color and, of course, giving them the opportunities to run and win.

MARTIN: Do you know Tim Scott?

CHRISTIE: I don't know him very well. We've met two or three times. He's...

MARTIN: I mean, does it diminish the effectiveness? And you can say what you will about Allen West, who served one term in the Congress from Florida, but he said he was explicitly joining the Black Caucus because he wanted to stand up for an alternate vision and perspective that he wanted to be associated with being African-American. And I just have to say, if a person isn't willing to affiliate - for whatever reasons, perfectly reasonable ones - does that diminish the importance of that?

CHRISTIE: I don't think it diminishes the importance of it. I think the important thing is that if you want to try to change things, you need to do it from the inside. Marcia Fudge, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, is someone who I know. She's a fantastic leader. Why not join the caucus? Why not put your conservative ideology out there and allow people to hear a different frame of reference?

MARTIN: Ron Christie here in Washington, D.C., Republican strategist, former aide to President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Keli Goff is a political correspondent for TheRoot.com. That's an online publication. She joined us from our bureau in New York.

Welcome back again. Thank you both so much for joining us.

CHRISTIE: Thanks, Michel.

GOFF: Thanks, Michel.

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