OP-ED: Trump missing an opportunity to burnish his legacy with gun law

Nathan L. Gonzales
CQ-Roll Call
FILE - In a Feb. 1, 2017, file photo, National Rifle Associations (NRA) Executive Vice President and Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre listens at right as President Donald Trump speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. In the latest national furor over mass killings, the tremendous political power of the NRA is likely to stymie any major changes to gun laws. The man behind the organization is LaPierre, the public face of the Second Amendment with his bombastic defense of guns, freedom and country in the aftermath of every mass shooting. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

President Donald Trump has forgotten who holds the power within the Republican Party.

There’s a perception that the National Rifle Association has an impenetrable lock on base Republican voters and thus is holding GOP members of Congress captive. But Trump is the one person who has the capital with the GOP base to oppose the NRA and get something done on guns. And the president is missing an opportunity to add a legacy item to his time in office and even help his chances of winning a second term.

In the wake of the deadly shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Trump diverged from the typical Republican talking points.

“Well, I’m looking to do background checks,” Trump told reporters on Aug. 9. “I think background checks are important. I don’t want to put guns into the hands of mentally unstable people or people with rage or hate.” He added that “we have to have very meaningful background checks.”

Then, it appeared the president backed away from that stance after talks with the NRA’s chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, and other GOP elected officials, according to The Atlantic, The New York Times and other outlets.

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On Wednesday, however, Trump told reporters “we’re going to be doing background checks” and they would tighten loopholes, not impose universal checks.

Rather than falling back on typical GOP talking points, Trump could be leaning in to one of his greatest strengths: being a political outsider. He was initially elected as a Republican without being a traditional Republican, and without being limited by ideological purity.

Now he has the power of nearly the full GOP behind him.

The president’s job approval rating among Republicans is extremely high. It was 90% in a mid-July poll by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist and 88% in an Aug. 11-13 Fox News poll.

The NRA is popular among Republicans as well, but not at the same level of the president. The August Fox News poll pinned the NRA’s favorability rating among Republicans at 72%. And according to an Aug. 10-13 Economist/YouGov poll, 73% of Republicans had a favorable view of the NRA.

Republican voters have bought into Trump as a messenger and are predisposed to believe his policy decisions, even if they run counter to their previous views or the traditional Republican Party platform.

In short, if anyone could withstand that strength of the NRA within the Republican Party, it’s President Trump. GOP politicians should fear the wrath of the president more than the NRA. Right now, the preeminent litmus test within the Republican Party is whether you are for or against Trump.

Even though voices inside and outside the president’s circle of advisers are telling him that a stance in favor of more restrictions on gun ownership will jeopardize support among Trump’s base voters, count me as skeptical.

Not only do most Republicans trust what the president says, but they will also never vote Democratic (or stay home and not vote) because they are so alarmed with the alternative. Republicans who may not be convinced by Trump, or are even disappointed with him, on new gun legislation would still be compelled to vote by the threat of socialism and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez running the country.

But tackling gun regulations is an opportunity for Trump to demonstrate independence from traditional GOP views and gain ground with independent voters he likely needs to win a second term. He could even put Democrats in a bind by coupling gun restrictions with something else Republicans want, particularly on border security.

But that chance is slipping away.