JUDY WOODRUFF: It was a rare Q&A: the president of the United States face to face with concerned citizens during a CNN town hall Thursday night, the topic, gun safety and gun rights.
President Obama made the case for the executive actions he announced earlier this week, saying his proposals balance the need to prevent gun deaths with the Constitution’s right to bear arms.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I respect the Second Amendment, I respect the right to bear arms. I respect people who want a gun for self-protection, for hunting, for sportsmanship.
But all of us can agree that it makes sense to do everything we can to keep guns out of the hands of people who would try to do others harm or to do themselves harm.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Earlier in the day, House Speaker Paul Ryan wrote off the president as someone who put too much emphasis on limiting access to guns, at the expense of Second Amendment rights.
REP. PAUL RYAN, Speaker of the House: I don’t think the president — I think he’s been pretty hostile to the Second Amendment all along.
I don’t think the president has a lot of respect for the Second Amendment. And guess what is one of the most important things that we can do as citizens, collectively, to protect ourselves from some possible terrorist attack? Exercising our Second Amendment rights.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And that brings us to the analysis of Brooks and Corn. That’s New York Times columnist David Brooks, and David Corn, Washington bureau chief for “Mother Jones” and an analyst for MSNBC. Mark Shields is away this week.
We welcome you both.
DAVID CORN: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Gentlemen.
So, David Brooks, who is right? Does the president respect the Second Amendment or doesn’t he?
DAVID BROOKS: I have got to side with Obama on this one.
He — the Second Amendment guarantees guns, some possession. It doesn’t guarantee all guns. It doesn’t guarantee a freedom from background checks. It doesn’t mean you can’t regulate them in some way.
And so I think he’s been reasonably respectful toward the Second Amendment. I personally support most of what he proposed. Do I think it will do a lot of good? Probably not. The history of gun control legislation from the Brady Bill, backwards and forwards, has been that it can reduce suicides, but it doesn’t seem to have a huge effect on homicide rates.
So the effect of what the president proposes is, I think, minimal, but probably a positive small step in the right direction. And it boggles the mind to think it would be in violation of the Constitution.
JUDY WOODRUFF: David Corn, what about this? Is Ryan right or is the president?
DAVID CORN: Paul Ryan was doing sort of a mild version of what the Republican conservative line has been, which is really to be sort of, I think, demagogic when talking about President Obama, that he wants to take guns away.
Just earlier in the week, Marco Rubio put out a campaign ad saying that the president wants to take your guns. And that’s been the line from the NRA Over and over again. And it’s really not true. He can’t. And there’s nothing that he’s proposed that would take guns away from people who actually possess them already.
And so I think the very interesting thing about the town hall meeting was that the president took that on directly. And he said, there are conspiracy theories out there about me, and I want to confront them. And he wondered why the NRA wasn’t there last night, because they had been invited to come.
I think the reason was because he was ready to really call them out on that point, and they don’t want to have that honest disagreement with the president.
JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, is there any movement on this issue? Are we just frozen, with each side standing its ground?
DAVID BROOKS: Mm-hmm, frozen.
DAVID BROOKS: You know, it’s become a cultural issue.
And, actually, I thought Obama is trying to begin to defuse that, but it is just a fact that a lot of people, especially in rural parts of the country, think that gun control is a symbol for, we don’t like your lifestyle. And they feel outsiders are dictating to them their lifestyle.
And so even non-gun owners in rural parts of Virginia or wherever perceive it as hostile elitism. And I think that’s how it’s frozen. That’s why it’s frozen.
DAVID CORN: It’s interesting, because that wasn’t always the case.
Back in 1994, Reagan urged banning the making of AK-47s and assault weapons. Chris Christie says that he got into politics in the early ’90s because he wanted to do something about guns. Even Marco Rubio, when he ran in 2000, said he was for reasonable restrictions.
So, there used to be this ability for Democrats and some Republicans to talk about this stuff. But the Republican Party, it has just moved so far to the right, I think goaded by the NRA, that there really is no room to talk about this without it becoming sort of caricatures.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And there is also conversation in the Democratic Party. The president also, David Brooks, wrote an op-ed piece for The New York — in your newspaper today, in which, among other things, he made some of the same arguments that he did last night in that town hall, but he also said: I won’t support a candidate, even one in my own party, who isn’t willing to go along with gun reform, with significant — some people looked at that as a shot at Bernie Sanders.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, Sanders has got a lot of wiggle room. And the president left himself some wiggle room.
If Sanders is the nominee, I guarantee you Barack Obama will be there for him.
DAVID CORN: Yes.
DAVID BROOKS: And then the other — if there are any other Democrats, they probably come from red states and they wouldn’t want Barack Obama campaigning for them anyway.
So, to me, that was a sentence without much meaning.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But — and in reaction to that, evidently, or at least because of it, David Corn, you had Hillary Clinton’s campaign today pointing out that what — some of the past votes of Bernie Sanders.
What is that all about?
DAVID CORN: Well, you know, the rap on Hillary Clinton within the Democratic Party has always been that she’s not progressive enough.
And Bernie Sanders, obviously, on issues of the economy, and financial reform, and in foreign policy, is to her left, and probably more in line with a lot of people, the Democratic primary voters.
So, guns is one place where there is a little distance. There is not a great difference, but there is some distance. You look at some past votes where she is more progressive than Bernie Sanders. And so any chance the Hillary Clinton campaign has to make something out of that, they did.
So, they leaped upon the Obama op-ed today to point out, well, maybe he won’t campaign for her, just — at least to suggest that, which I don’t think is a possibility.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But is that something that makes a difference in Iowa or New Hampshire, which are coming up in a few weeks?
DAVID BROOKS: No.
DAVID CORN: I don’t think…
DAVID BROOKS: There’s only one small group of people who vote on the gun issue. And that’s the NRA. Nobody else votes on the gun issue in this country, which is why it’s hard to pass gun control legislation.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to ask you about — there is more to talk about, about the Democrats.
But on the Republican side, you’re seeing — yes, you saw this Clinton-Sanders back and forth, but, on the Republican side, among — David Brooks, among the so-called establishment Republicans, they’re taking more potshots at one another.
You’re hearing a lot of back and forth between Rubio and Cruz, between Rubio and Christie. So, what’s going on over there, or is anybody making any headway among that group?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, Ted Cruz is making headway.
There’s — you begin to see little signs of liftoff. Trump has sort of ceiling-ed out. Carson is collapsing. And Cruz is somehow beginning to get some momentum from Iowa and elsewhere. And so people are either mimicking him, which Rubio is doing a little by adopting some of the dark and satanic tones that Cruz has, and so…
JUDY WOODRUFF: What did you — let me just ask, what did you just say?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, if you go to a Cruz — if you watch a Cruz speech, it’s like, we have got this enemy, we have got that enemy, we’re going to stomp on this person, we’re going to crush that person, we’re going to destroy that person.
It is an ugly world in Ted Cruz’s world. And it’s combative. And it’s angry, and it’s apocalyptic.
DAVID CORN: Well, actually, if you go to a speech from his dad, who is a pastor, evangelical, Rafael Cruz, it actually is satanic.
DAVID CORN: He — I watched a speech in which he said Satan was behind the Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage.
So, it’s not…
DAVID BROOKS: OK. Well, I withdraw the satanic from Ted Cruz.
DAVID CORN: You’re thinking that it’s political, but, sometimes, it’s literal.
DAVID BROOKS: Mephistophelian, maybe.
DAVID BROOKS: But it’s dark and combative, and, frankly, harsh. It’s a harsh — he gets some jokes in the beginning, but then it’s just, we have enemies. We’re in an apocalyptic situation. We’re on the edge of the abyss. You need a tough guy to beat that back.
And that’s his personality. That’s not Marco Rubio’s personality. He’s a sunny — he’s been running the youthful optimism campaign, but he’s beginning, to prevent Cruz from getting liftoff, to mimic sort of that, get a piece of that.
I personally think it’s a mistake, because inauthentic — inauthenticity almost never works. And so, if Cruz starts to go like — I mean, if Rubio starts to go like Cruz, he just doesn’t look like himself, and that bothers people.
DAVID CORN: I think the interesting dynamic is, a few months ago, the conventional wisdom, which has been wrong at every turn of this campaign, was that Trump would kind of fade by the beginning of the voting, and there would be a couple different spots for people to land in.
And, right now, Trump hasn’t faded. Cruz has sort of moved up, but he is not an establishment candidate. So that has left the so-called establishment candidates, whether it’s Rubio, Kasich, Christie, whoever you put in that group, fighting for third place.
And I think the desperation level has just really amped up. And I see them all as, like, guys in a pool treading water and trying to splash water in the face of the others, because they’re so desperate not to be cut out…
DAVID CORN: … because Cruz and Trump seem to have a lock, at least in Iowa, on the first two positions.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But, in New Hampshire, it seems to me there’s more room to play.
DAVID CORN: Yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: To keep the water analogy, rather than the satanic analogy there.
DAVID CORN: I think so, too.
But they kind of all seemed to make a decision in December that they had to do — they had to have some sort of a showing in Iowa, because there just isn’t enough room for The train out of Manchester at the end of that…
JUDY WOODRUFF: But is any one of them — you mentioned Christie, Kasich, Rubio.
DAVID CORN: Oh, Jeb Bush.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You didn’t — neither one of you has mentioned Jeb Bush.
DAVID CORN: Oh, yes. There is this guy named Jeb Bush, yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Is any one of them making headway, the kind of headway that could last for a few weeks?
DAVID CORN: Well, no one seems to be having a breakout moment.
Christie has been moving up a little bit, only in New Hampshire. Rubio has had a little bit of burst and then kind of leveled out. So, maybe we will be surprised the first week in February in New Hampshire, but, so far, I don’t see anybody coming out of the pack here.
DAVID BROOKS: Right.
Yes, I still think it will be a Cruz-Rubio thing by the end of the first two. But then you go down South, and Cruz has some natural turf to run there. And so he just has a straighter line to the nomination.
I personally think his personality is not ideal for a candidate in likability.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean Cruz.
DAVID BROOKS: But — I’m trying to compensate for my past crudeness.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Cruz, yes, yes.
DAVID BROOKS: And so — but he — if you look now, I still think he’s the guy with the straightest line to the nomination.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But you don’t — you — specifically, you have mentioned Rubio a few times. You don’t see Christie? You don’t see Kasich, Bush?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, Christie is like — he’s like what McCain did in ’08. He just sits there, and has town hall after town hall in New Hampshire.
And, like McCain, he’s a genius at formulation. He’s great at riffling. And so it’s working for him. So, he’s coming up. And you begin to see people taking shots at Christie. But he’s not acceptable to all parts of the party.
Cruz — Rubio is acceptable to all parts of the party, which makes him the most viable alternative.
DAVID CORN: Well, not on immigration, though. That is still a very big liability for Rubio.
Eventually, he has to get votes from the Republican base. The Republican base hates anything to do with immigration reform. And he has tried to run away from that. But if he gets closer, other people will remind the base of where he used to be.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I differ on that.
The people who stand up at these meetings, they tend to not have any tolerance for what Rubio did a couple years ago. But if you poll Republican primary voters, there are some polls where a majority favor some sort of path to citizenship. So, among the actual voters, the silent majority, there is a lot more flexibility than you would think if you just listen to the questions at the town halls.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You get the sense Republican primary voters may be struggling, those who haven’t decided yet may be struggling still about what to do.
The health care reform law, ACA, the Republicans in the House finally got enough votes, David this, week. The Senate had already passed repeal. Now the House has. They got it to the president’s desk. Now, he’s vetoed it.
But Paul Ryan, we hear him saying today, we’re going to — this isn’t the last you heard about this.
Is the ACA in real jeopardy here?
DAVID BROOKS: No. No.
Even if a Republican wins, it’s entrenched. The systemic disruption that would caused by simply getting rid of it would be catastrophic for a lot of companies and a lot of actual people who are actually doing stuff on the ground.
If a Republican got in, it would change a lot. But, frankly, if a Democrat gets in, it is going to change a lot. Some of the really startling premium hikes that we’re seeing from some of the insurance companies are going to cause huge problems down the road.
So, even if a Democrat gets in, there’s going to have to be some changes. But it’s very hard to see you just — just uprooting it? It’s too deeply entrenched.
JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you see?
DAVID CORN: It wasn’t even repealed. They repealed the part of the law that requires people to have insurance, but they kept in the stuff that’s popular, which is, if you have preexisting conditions, you can get coverage. Anyone can get coverage.
But the problem is, if you take away the requirement, and you just leave the ability of people with preexisting conditions to get coverage, then premiums truly skyrocket.
So, what they were doing, they were voting for a way to create a death spiral without replacing it with anything. So they don’t want this bill to pass. And, if you look at — in Kentucky, a good case study, where a Tea Party candidate won saying he would repeal Obamacare, Bevin, he became governor.
And in between New Year’s Day and Christmas, he very quietly said he wasn’t going to get rid of the Medicaid expansion that he promised to, because it’s working in Kentucky.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re saying that’s a model for what is — a forerunner of what’s happening in Washington?
DAVID CORN: Yes, I don’t — listen, they can’t get rid of it without tremendous dislocation to real people. They will pay a real political cost.
And they haven’t suggested an alternative. So I think it was just all showmanship. And it was kind of funny that Paul Ryan was saying, look what we have accomplished today.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will leave it there with what we accomplished here.
David Corn, David Brooks, we thank you both.
DAVID CORN: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Thanks.