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Opinion Don’t get snowed by Mitch McConnell’s ‘openness’ to acting on guns

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) at a May 3 news conference on Capitol Hill. (Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)
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With the country still in shock from the horrific mass shooting in Texas, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is letting it be known that he’s supposedly open to some kind of serious bipartisan deal on gun control.

If you believe that, we have a new line of Trump Vodka and Trump Steaks that we’d like you to invest in, which you’ll surely want to do with the business smarts you acquire from the course you complete at Trump University.

Seriously? How many times do we need to see how McConnell operates before we learn something about his M.O.?

The news of McConnell’s supposed openness to a deal comes courtesy of CNN, which reports that McConnell has directed Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) to talk to Democrats to gauge a possible compromise on gun legislation.

McConnell told CNN that he “encouraged” Cornyn to talk with Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy (Conn.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.). McConnell declared that he’s “hopeful” about a "bipartisan solution.”

A larger bipartisan group of senators has also begun talking about a gun bill.

But with McConnell, you have to ask: What’s in his political interest from the most nakedly cynical and instrumental perspective you can dream up? Answer that and you’ll have a decent read on what he’s likely to do.

In this case, what might be in his interest is to make a show of reaching out, then ultimately to ensure that 10 Republican senators fail to materialize to support a deal. He can then blame Democratic intransigence for that failure, and he will have gotten headlines in the interim making Republicans appear open to a deal, at exactly the moment when public angst over the shooting is at its peak.

We’ve seen this before. When the House impeached Donald Trump over the violent Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection attempt, McConnell signaled openness to convicting Trump. This produced headlines proclaiming “McConnell open to convicting Trump in impeachment trial.

But in the end he voted to acquit Trump, as was surely his intention all along. Then as now, he got headlines advertising his reasonableness at exactly the moment when public emotions (over the attack on the Capitol) were at their height.

Any basic reading of McConnell’s incentives implies that this is likely to happen again. Killing a deal on gun control avoids the risk of a backlash from the Republican base, which might recoil at any deal as an unconscionable betrayal.

McConnell also knows that the Democratic base is frustrated with their leaders, in general and on this issue in particular. Congressional failure on guns could demobilize that base, making them more likely to stay home in November in disgust, boosting GOP chances.

We should offer a caveat. It’s perfectly possible that this time McConnell will decide a deal is more in his interests than failure is. He might calculate that the public’s horror over this shooting is so deep that being part of a bipartisan solution could give Republicans more benefit in the midterms than failure would.

After all, there are times that McConnell calculates that allowing bipartisanship to happen is better for him and Republicans politically, such as when the infrastructure bill passed last year.

And in this case, any deal will likely be pretty modest. As Murphy has said, such a compromise might combine a “red-flag” law with a proposal to close a loophole that allows some sellers to avoid performing background checks. That would fall well short of universal background checks, though still worth doing.

So maybe McConnell will decide that this is so modest that it carries more upside than downside. On the other hand, even if Republicans are feeling extra pressure to act, remember what happened after the Sandy Hook massacre of 20 children in 2012: Senators reached a bipartisan deal seriously beefing up background checks. It had overwhelming public support. It fell to a GOP filibuster, led by ... McConnell.

The core point here is that McConnell’s calculation of what’s in Republicans’ naked political interests will carry the day either way. Substance will be largely irrelevant.

The leaks are meant to portray McConnell and Republicans as so horrified by the shooting that they really want to act in substantive terms. But that will not determine what happens. In this sense, we should not get snowed.

There’s a deep perversity here. Democrats have to push the possibility of reaching a bipartisan deal as far as possible. There’s no other option, given the awfulness of the massacre and the deep despair many feel about congressional paralysis in the face of it.

As Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) put it on the floor Thursday: “This is too important not to explore every option.” Whatever you think about Senate Democrats right now, this is plainly right. Not trying to reach a deal is unthinkable, no matter how improbable it is.

Which means the horrors of the situation have left Democrats stuck in the position of chasing Republican support that very likely will not materialize, a failure that McConnell will then weaponize for the midterms.

We have to hope this time is different, and there are reasons it might be. But if it turns out to be yet another snow job, everyone should have seen it coming.

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