Commentary: We kissed conservatism goodbye when we let Trump lead the GOP
In a White House meeting Wednesday, President Hillary Clinton expressed a willingness to ban assault weapons, tweaked Republicans for being afraid of the National Rifle Association and mused aloud about bypassing due process to seize firearms.
My bad. That was President Donald Trump.
Wednesday's Cabinet Room gun control roundtable left gun-rights advocates, NRA members and rank-and-file conservatives (the few of us left, anyway) aghast that Trump not only isn't who he claimed to be on the campaign trail - we already knew he holds almost no firm political convictions - but that what passes for a Republican policy proposal in his administration is up for grabs and that his most loyal followers don't really seem to care. The whole thing prompted normally Trumpist Breitbart News to run a "Trump The Gun Grabber" headline, but that handwringing is too little, too late, and unlikely to further cool Trump's lukewarm approval ratings. Trump's underwater overall but still enjoying robust support among "Republicans."
It's the same whiplash old-school Republicans felt during last year's Obamacare repeal fight: You know, when the president described one version of the congressional GOP repeal plan as "mean" while berating Republican members of the Senate and House via Twitter and calling legislative audibles at exactly the wrong moments.
Ditto recent political wrangling over DACA: Build-the-wall-and-ship-'dreamers'-home-Trump must have called out sick the day that bill-of-love Trump sat in a room full of legislators and said he'd support the "clean DACA bill," sans border security provisions, on Democrats' wish list. White House adviser and immigration hawk Stephen Miller probably dry-heaved when he heard that one. For a minute, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi probably couldn't believe their good fortune - until Republicans grabbed Trump by the lapels and made him snap out of it.
Trump is a creature almost preternaturally attuned to the shifting moods of the public and deeply influenced by what he sees on television. For him, ideology and philosophy do not mediate politics, politics is mediated by TV; specifically, how he is personally portrayed on TV. He thinks he is, or should be, the star of every story. A presumption that's been challenged in recent weeks.
Since mid- to late 2015, with only a few brief interruptions, he has, indeed, been the media's focus. Coverage hasn't always been favorable, but to him, all attention is good. For the last two weeks, however, the Parkland, Florida, school shooting has been driving the news, and the cable talk-show programming he claims not to watch has been wall to wall Parkland and gun control.
Trump has seen the fresh-faced, well-spoken Parkland kids, with stories of the genuine horror they witnessed, their push for strict gun control, including the banning of semi-automatic rifles, particularly AR-15s, and for a general rollback of Second Amendment liberties. Creature of emotion and instinct that he is, he's been (fairly easily) convinced by the fake-news-liberal-media (read: the-folks-I-want-so-badly-to-like-me) that gun control's moment has arrived.
So - eager to look like the magnanimous dealmaker that he clearly is not and will never be - he sat down and told Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that she should roll her assault weapons ban into the languishing center-right Manchin-Toomey gun reform bill, and she could barely contain her glee.
The problem, at least in this case, is that on top of the long-standing partisan impasse over Second Amendment rights, you've got Trump's long-standing pattern of shifting under the influence of the news cycle and whatever he perceives as the popular view - a make-believe strongman whose idea of being the people's champion is to mold himself, Play-Doh-like, to conform to whatever pleases the audience immediately in front of him. He believes in nothing, but has infinite moods.
As a longtime GOP consultant, I've always had a half-joking, half-serious rule about political candidates and elected officials: They can be tough, smart, decent or talented, but of those traits, they realistically only get to choose two. Trump, entirely sui generis in our politics, is a successful politician embodying none of those. He's poorly briefed, malleable, crass and dishonest, and all he cares about is how he comes across in the press. Which makes it damn-near impossible for any self-respecting conservative to understand him, anticipate his positions or trust him on policy.
In every legislative fight, the president is a weak ally and an unreliable narrator. Except for tax cuts - the easiest thing in the world to sell (who doesn't want a bigger paycheck?) - he can't sell what he doesn't understand, and that's a lot.
Over the course of his life and career, from guns, to health care, to abortion, to the Iraq War, to whether the federal government's monthly employment numbers are "phony," Trump hasn't been even close to the get-it-done, never-back-down, super negotiator of his own daydreams. As near as I can tell, his deepest convictions are that the best steak is an overcooked one and that there's nothing that doesn't look better with his name, in all-caps, appended to it.
He's a gun-grabber today. Give him a day or two, and he might think about grabbing something else.
Rick Wilson is a Republican consultant and a Daily Beast columnist.