Guns Are A Key Part Of American Political Identity. That Makes Reform Unlikely. : The NPR Politics Podcast Fearing base backlash, Republican lawmakers are unlikely to support gun control measures popular among the American public. And limiting Democratic margins in the suburbs is vital should the party hope to win back the levers of power in Washington.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, congressional correspondent Susan Davis, and national political correspondent Don Gonyea.

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Guns Are A Key Part Of American Political Identity. That Makes Reform Unlikely.

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Guns Are A Key Part Of American Political Identity. That Makes Reform Unlikely.

Guns Are A Key Part Of American Political Identity. That Makes Reform Unlikely.

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JENNIFER: Hi, this is Jennifer (ph). And I'm a tax preparer in Suwannee, Ga. And I just found out the IRS has extended tax season until May 17. This podcast was recorded at...

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

2:04 p.m. on Wednesday, March 24, 2021.

JENNIFER: ...Things may have changed by the time you hear this. They're certainly changing in tax law on the daily. Hang in there, fellow tax preparers. OK, here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: I don't know about you guys, but I already did my taxes.

KEITH: Seriously?

DAVIS: Yeah, my taxes are filed and done.

KEITH: You are an overachiever.

DAVIS: (Laughter).

KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: And I'm Don Gonyea, national political correspondent.

KEITH: And after two shootings - mass shootings - in less than a week left a total of 18 people dead in Georgia and Colorado, Vice President Harris urged the Senate to approve two House-passed gun control measures. That was this morning in an interview with CBS.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS THIS MORNING")

VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: Enough with the partisanship. Enough with the ideological perspective on this. Let's just be practical and agree. People who have been found to be a danger to themselves and others should not be able to purchase a gun.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Well, what will the Biden administration do?

KEITH: And Vice President Harris was echoing President Biden. The message, essentially - Congress, you need to do something. But, Sue, it's been a generation since Congress has been able to do anything on gun safety measures.

DAVIS: Yeah, more or less. God, where do we even begin? In some ways, I feel like we've done this podcast so many times because we've talked about the gun debate after mass shooting time and time again. And the political reality hasn't really changed despite the massive power shifts in Washington. Guns is just one of these intractable issues that's become so divided along party lines. It's become such an issue of sort of cultural identity.

And even as you have large majorities of Americans saying things that they would like, things like tougher background checks for gun purchases, certain gun purchases - we should be clear, there are background checks for most commercial gun purchases today - they just can't get there. And I can't really tell you, Tam, that I see anything changing this time around. I think we're still stuck in the mud on this one.

GONYEA: I've talked to a lot of Republican voters at that Trump rallies, but also in a lot of other places, and this is an issue that is just bedrock for Republicans. And it's short-handed to the Second Amendment. And there's no room for any discussion. And any movement at all is just seen as Democrats or the liberals coming at them. And even people who would never consider owning an AR-15 or that kind of a weapon feel that this is just one of those issues where they need to hold the line, but also where they can stick it to the liberals.

DAVIS: And I think that's exactly right. And at the same time, I think you've seen Democrats get more entrenched, too. Chris Murphy - he's a Democrat from Connecticut. He's been really vocal on gun control issues. And he said this week he didn't understand why Democrats should feel any need to compromise on the issue of background checks when they feel like the country's with them. So even if they could maybe get a bill through the Senate that has more Republican support, there's a lot of Democrats like Chris Murphy who would say, you know what? I'd rather wait and hold off until we can get what we want versus having to compromise.

KEITH: There's also talk about executive action, signing executive orders or doing something that doesn't require legislation. And both Biden and Harris have said that that's an option. But Harris made an argument on TV this morning that that doesn't really do much. It will just lead to whiplash. It's not permanent. Any executive action can be undone by the next president, which we saw when President Trump came in and we're seeing now with President Biden.

DAVIS: Yeah, there's really not much a president can do about executive order to the major debate about guns that we're having. I do think it's important to remember, too, that this is at a time where, yeah, a majority of Americans say we want better background checks. But in the past year, we also saw gun sales explode in this country during the pandemic, most of which, according to our own reporting, was first-time gun buyers. So these are very conflicting pieces of data for members of Congress to try to make policy around - is that on the one hand, the country seems to still be saying, we really would like access to lots and lots of guns, but we just want to make it safer for who gets to get them.

GONYEA: Just one quick anecdote here. About three years ago, I guess it was, I went to Republican Adam Kinzinger's district in Illinois, in kind of the far exurbs outside of Chicago. Kinzinger, of course, famous more recently for voting for impeachment. Back then, he proposed just the smallest steps on gun legislation and reform - background checks and limiting the sizes of those high-capacity magazines. And he caught hell for it in his district among Republicans.

DAVIS: Yeah.

GONYEA: But - and I guess this is key - he did survive when he ran for reelection in 2018, which I guess tees up what he's facing now on this other issue.

KEITH: Yeah, let's see if he survives impeachment. Well, Don, I want to talk more about suburban Republicans, and you've been doing reporting on what they have to say about the future of the party and their chances without president - former President Trump at the top of the ballot. We'll talk about that after a quick break.

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KEITH: And we're back. And, Don, as you put it in your story, Trump got shellacked in the suburbs during the 2020 election. So let's start with a simple question - are the suburbs important to today's Republican coalition? Do they need suburban Republicans in the tent? Do they need there to be suburban Republicans in order to regain the levers of power in Washington?

GONYEA: Well, the suburbs are obviously important to them. Whether or not they will actually have elected Republicans from the suburbs is a more difficult proposition for them. Right? But there are so many voters in the suburbs, and they turn out. And the problem for Republicans is that because the suburbs are so highly educated, and increasingly so, and they are getting more and more diverse every single year, they are trending Democratic. A lot of them flipped, you know, in the last decade or so. A lot of them - a lot of counties are just now turning, or maybe they turned in 2018 or 2020. But mostly those trends present problems for Republicans in statewide elections and in presidential elections. Right?

The goal for Republicans is they have to keep the margins down. They know they're going to lose the suburbs, but they don't want to lose them just horribly or embarrassingly. And that is actually what Donald Trump pulled off in 2016. He narrowed the margins, especially if you look at a state like Pennsylvania and those collar counties around Philadelphia. Yes, he lost to Hillary Clinton there, but he didn't lose as badly as he might have. And because of that, he, you know, eked out a win statewide. But along comes 2020, and Joe Biden gets all of those voters back and then some. He, like, increased his margin by 100,000 in those collar counties around Philly alone.

The big question left over from 2020 - and we're going to see how this kind of slurps over into 2022 - was, how much of the Democrats success in those suburbs was a result of just pure dislike and animus toward Donald Trump and how much of it was because of these other long-term trends?

KEITH: Well, and, Sue, Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader in the House, hoping to become the speaker, they must be thinking about this geography.

DAVIS: Oh, very much so. And I think that Republicans see the suburbs as their path to the House majority. And they may get there. You know, they have a lot of fundamentals going into the midterms that play in their favor. One is that they're the party not in power in the White House. And one of the biggest markers for who does well in the midterms is the opposing party. They tend to pick up seats. So I think Republicans feel like they have sort of the wind at their backs going into this. The hard part is, like, we're just too far away from 2022 to know what the subset of issues is that's really motivating voters to go in.

What I will tell you is I talked to a lot of Republican strategists about the suburbs in the 2020 election, and they did not feel hopeless, even though Trump. As Don rightly noted, lost so badly there. Because the voters that they focus grouped still really aligned with the Republican Party on a lot of issues. They still tend to be the voters that Republicans are trying to get. Let's be clear. And when I say that, we're talking more college educated, mostly white, higher income. They tend to want smaller government. They care a lot about national security. They're a little bit more skeptical about immigration - issues that Republicans feel like their message can really appeal to them. Trump was just really toxic to these voters. So frankly, without Trump on the ballot, I think House Republican strategists see a lot more ability to get a message through that isn't just about Donald Trump.

KEITH: Though, interestingly, like, so much of the message - and obviously it's early, but so much of the message right now isn't about the size of government; it's about cancel culture or, like, the latest outrage, which is very Trumpy (ph).

DAVIS: Sure. But, you know, if you look at what the lawmakers are focused on right now - Democrats, obviously, out there promoting the economic stimulus plan they just passed. Republicans are really focused on immigration. They're not even talking about that because they know that they don't really have much of a case to make against it right now. But they're focused on the issues where they think they can win. And immigration, I think, is a great example of one of them.

GONYEA: Can I bring in another voice here quickly? This is a professor I talked to from the University of Michigan. His name is Matt Lassiter. And he says these voters don't necessarily identify first as Democrats, that they really do have their own set of issues that are really about the suburbs.

MATT LASSITER: I personally believe that their main political identities are not as Democrats but are parents, taxpayer, homeowner. And the way they think about politics broadly, not just elections, is the things that we don't talk about a lot like zoning, like school boundaries. That those things matter more than who they vote for every four years in a presidential election.

GONYEA: And those are the kind of things that come up in these more localized races, particularly during a midterm.

KEITH: Well, and also could be an area - and, you know, I've talked to Republican consultants who believe this - that an area for potentially bringing people who should be Republicans back into the fold is schools - schools being closed during the pandemic, not reopening five days a week, you know, the ongoing battles that are particularly acute in urban areas but also in the suburbs.

GONYEA: That's absolutely going to be a big issue in two years. And obviously, we're winding down a school year now, but then we're going to have the summer and then we're going to have another start of a school year. And we're going to see what it looks like. But not just in the suburbs, but certainly in the suburbs, and again, in these places where voter turnout is so high, there is just so much frustration about schools. And that does seem to cut across, you know, political beliefs. And it doesn't necessarily mean they all agree on what should be done. But, yes, you can count on that being a huge issue.

KEITH: All right. We are going to leave it there for now. We may be back in your feeds a little bit late tomorrow because President Biden is having his first press conference - his first formal press conference as president. And we will be following that and talking about that on the pod once it's over. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

GONYEA: And I'm Don Gonyea. I cover national politics.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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