With Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s campaign turning fully toward the general election, the candidate is speaking in increasingly strong terms about immediately tackling one of her party’s most challenging domestic policy goals: gun control.
Clinton says just as forcefully that immigration reform would be her top priority upon entering the White House.
Without a dramatic Democratic sweep of Congress, few Democrats or Republicans believe that either of these giant promises has a chance in January. That puts Clinton in the somewhat tricky position of making promises that many doubt she could fulfill.
But the Clinton campaign believes that public opinion has shifted on these two nationally divisive issues, making them winners for her to talk about in the general election. There is even hope among some Democrats that if Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, they could win enough seats in the House and Senate to put gun and immigration legislation back on the table.
Privately, Clinton aides and allies are more circumspect, prioritizing what is actually possible at the outset of a Clinton presidency — and which promises she would put on hold.
The campaign says that there is no trade-off between immigration and gun control and that she has not overpromised on either. There is plenty of time to decide what comes when, campaign chairman John Podesta said.
“That’s what the transition is for,” Podesta said, referring to the period between the election and the inauguration.
Clinton is campaigning as the candidate of continuity — preserving what Democrats generally see as President Obama’s gains and making changes on his domestic agenda only at the margins. She is also promising to fix and finish what he has left undone, suggesting to different audiences that she could do so immediately.
An overhaul of immigration laws, though anathema in the Republican presidential primary race, is still a better legislative bet than gun control, said Republicans and Democrats. Many Democrats think that would be doubly true if Republicans lose a large number of seats in November.
“The only way that the kind of gun control that she’s talking about is going to happen is if there’s a major sea change in Congress,” said Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.). “You know, Nancy Pelosi speaker again. It’s not going to happen if there’s a Republican House. It’s just not.”
Independent analysts such as the Cook Political Report predict large gains for Democrats in the House. But even the projected range of 15 to 20 seats would leave the party short of the 30 needed to reclaim the House.
As a result, Clinton and her allies in and out of Congress are gradually building a legislative agenda that would focus on immigration issues in Congress while mostly relying on the executive power of the presidency to further gun restrictions that would have little chance of becoming law.
Clinton’s language on the campaign trail is more expansive. At a recent appearance in Hartford, Conn., she pledged that gun control would be at the top of her to-do list, no matter the strength of the opposition.
“We need a national movement” to demand action in Congress and at the state level, Clinton said at a community meeting at a YMCA.
“The gun lobby is the most powerful lobby in Washington,” she said. “They have figured out how to really intimidate elected officials, at all levels, who basically stop thinking about this problem because they are too scared of the NRA,” she continued, referring to the National Rifle Association.
She has been more specific about an overhaul of the immigration system at the outset of a Clinton presidency, promising to advance comprehensive measures that would offer a path to full citizenship for illegal immigrants within her first 100 days.
“If Congress won’t act, I’ll defend President Obama’s executive actions, and I’ll go even further to keep families together,” Clinton promised in January. “I’ll end family detention, close private immigrant detention centers and help more eligible people become naturalized.”
Clinton also has been mildly critical of Obama’s deportation program, promising to stop deportations of almost everyone, aside from violent criminals or terrorists.
Clinton’s policy agenda is the most detailed of any candidate’s on either side of the race. But without a single issue on par with Obama’s health-care priority, her promises demand an evaluation of how to rank her priorities.
In addition to gun control and immigration, she has promised to tackle college costs while simultaneously creating jobs, lowering prescription drug prices, fixing crumbling roads and bridges, and getting big money out of politics. And then there’s curbing Wall Street excesses and promoting clean energy sources, among other things.
Immigration and gun control are the issues she points to most frequently, and often with emotional stories and examples. At the YMCA discussion on guns, Clinton was introduced by Erica Smegielski, daughter of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school principal who was shot to death three years ago along with 20 students and five other staff members.
Gun control has been a central topic for Clinton in her primary contest with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who has a mixed record on the issue. (The two will face off in their latest primary Tuesday, in Indiana.) But she has continued to mention the issue as she has turned her attention to the general election, frequently citing polling showing overwhelming public support for universal background checks.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), herself a victim of gun violence, said Clinton is saying what many people want to hear about guns, even if Congress isn’t listening. Speaking just outside the House chamber, she jabbed a finger back toward it and said of Republicans, “They are totally tone-deaf to what’s going on in the rest of the country.”
Gun control and immigration met with interlocking fates early in Obama’s second term, when he and Vice President Biden made a pitch for legislation strengthening background checks on gun purchases — and when the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators began work on a sweeping rewrite of immigration and border-security laws.
After the outcry from the mass shooting in Newtown, Democratic leaders decided to move the gun measure first, in part because public polling showed that about 90 percent of Americans supported action. But the NRA, with help from moderate Republicans and some centrist Democrats, dug in for a fight.
Democrats ditched the gun legislation and pivoted to immigration. Two months later, the Senate approved the immigration overhaul on a bipartisan vote of 68 to 32. The legislation included a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants. It never went anywhere in the House.
That’s the history Clinton would inherit — including the presumption that these big lifts can only be done one at a time, Democrats said.
Clinton would go further than Obama to broaden requirements for background checks and narrow loopholes that allow largely unrestricted trafficking of guns online.
“Building on the steps pursued by President Obama, Secretary Clinton will take administrative action to require that any person attempting to sell a significant number of guns be deemed ‘in the business’ of selling firearms,” campaign press secretary Brian Fallon said.
“This would ensure that high-volume gun sellers are covered by the same common-sense rules that apply to gun stores — including requiring background checks on gun sales,” he said. “She will also lead the charge on legislation to repeal the gun industry’s unique immunity protection.”
It won’t happen coming out of this election, said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele.
“There’s not a legislative mood to make a change, even though the country is crying for that change,” he said. “It would take members losing their seats on that issue to get those who were fortunate enough to survive to begin to act.”
And Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.), whose district includes the site of the Newtown massacre, said changing gun laws is a long game at best.
“It will not change, I can assure you, unless we have a president insisting that it has to change,” she said. “How long that will take, I cannot tell you.”
Speier waved off any political consequences for Clinton if she weren’t able to deliver much on guns.
“Why would we say that about her versus Trump, who says things every day that he can’t deliver on?” Speier said. “It shows that she has a backbone. We need a president who has a backbone, someone who’s not going to, out of fear of blowback, say what needs to be said. The moms of America are going to embrace it; they want their kids to be able to play in a park without being shot.”
Rep. Ken Buck (R-Colo.) said that Clinton is promising the moon to Democratic voters now, but he predicted she would back off in a general-election race.
“It may be a great talking point in a Democratic primary,” Buck said. “I think it’s going to be a liability when she runs for president.”
Clinton’s allies agree that immigration is more ripe for change, particularly if Republicans lose seats. But opposition remains fierce among the House’s more-conservative Republicans. Hopes for approving some version of that legislation in the House cratered two years ago when the sitting majority leader, Eric Cantor (R-Va.), lost his primary contest to an underfunded, little-known professor whose main issue was Cantor’s support of legalizing undocumented children who were brought into the country illegally by their parents or relatives.
Ever since then, conservatives have vowed to thwart any effort by Clinton to move a far-reaching immigration bill through a Republican-controlled House next year.
“The American people would have an absolute cow,” said Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), who defeated Cantor, openly laughing at the idea. In most Republican districts, he said, immigration is a “70 to 80 percent issue” toward opposing any leniency. “I mean, it’s not even in the ballpark.”
Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.