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Tamara Keith and Joshua Johnson on Trump and recession fears, gun safety momentum

NPR’s Tamara Keith and Joshua Johnson join William Brangham to discuss the latest political news, including policy proposals among 2020 Democrats, rumors of an upcoming recession and how a weakening economy could affect President Trump's reelection and momentum for new gun security measures after El Paso and Dayton massacres.

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  • William Brangham:

    And that brings us to Politics Monday.

    I'm here with Tamara Keith from NPR. She also co-hosts "The NPR Politics Podcast." And Joshua Johnson, also from NPR, he's the host of "1A."

    Welcome to you both, Politics Monday. It's nice to have the public media gang around the table here.

  • Joshua Johnson:

    The way it should be. Power to public media.

  • William Brangham:

    Joshua, let's talk about — we saw some of the leading candidates and what they were up to this past weekend.

    But there are still a dozen-plus candidates who are trying to break out, to get their head above water, to get their name known.

    What do you make of the different efforts that these candidates are trying out?

  • Joshua Johnson:

    Well, it is kind of hard for me to draw comparisons, because 2020 is going to be so different from 2016.

    You have got these debates, which have already started to have a little bit of a built-in attrition effect, where fund-raising and individual campaign contributions are going to play a factor. So we will see some attrition from that, if people just aren't able to marshal enough grassroots support.

  • William Brangham:

    Right.

  • Joshua Johnson:

    Also, we're in a different calendar.

    Iowa, New Hampshire are typically important, but California is part of Super Tuesday. And as a former San Franciscan, and I'm really interested to see if people on the West Coast are able to say, uh-uh, we want to pull the party in this direction, and blow the whole field up with one set of votes.

  • William Brangham:

    Right. That would be huge, California.

  • Joshua Johnson:

    It would be.

    And, also, the Democrats are trying to learn the lesson of 2016 and make sure every single demographic that they have an inroads in shows up to the polls. The last thing they want is to have a series of edge cases in 2020 that allowed Donald Trump to be reelected.

    So, part of it, it's just retail stuff politics of trying to get people to like me. And I think part of it is also just getting Democrats to say, no matter who the nominee is, I will show up in November.

  • William Brangham:

    Tam, we saw a couple of big proposals out of Bernie and, to a lesser degree, Elizabeth Warren over the weekend.

    Again, issues — they seem to be wanting to make this an issue-driven campaign. Is that really the strategy?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Certainly for the primary.

    All the candidates — almost all of them have a lot of plans. If even — you go to Andrew Yang's Web site, he has, like, 100 different proposals on different things. Elizabeth Warren, her campaign slogan is essentially she's got a plan for that.

  • William Brangham:

    Right.

  • Tamara Keith:

    Bernie Sanders, of course, had this criminal justice plan that he came out with.

    And so, yes, this is a campaign where, in the primary, they are talking about plans. But here's the thing about the general election. President Trump has shown virtually no interest in policy details at any point in his presidency, and certainly in his campaign.

    So the idea that there could be a debate where they would stand up there and really trade ideas…

  • William Brangham:

    Hash the complexities of climate change or something.

  • Tamara Keith:

    It's not going to happen that way.

    But in terms of sending a signal about what you care about in the Democratic primary field, a way to send a signal to voters that you care, that you feel what they're feeling is to have a plan for that.

  • William Brangham:

    Joshua, one of the things that the president seems to be signaling too is that he does seem to be nervous that an economic downturn could imperil his chances.

    I think, at a rally last week, he said something like, if you all don't reelect me, the economy is going to go in the toilet.

  • Joshua Johnson:

    Your 401(k)s are going to go belly up.

  • William Brangham:

    Exactly.

  • Joshua Johnson:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    That is the axiom of politics, that the economy determines who wins the presidency. Do you still believe that that's true?

  • Joshua Johnson:

    Well, kind of.

    It's not just the economy. And I agree with Kai Ryssdal that the stock market is not the economy. It's the way that institutional investors view the economy.

    I think it's more about prosperity. Remember what Donald Trump's whole ethos, his whole image was in 2016: I'm a billionaire. I'm a businessman. I know how to get stuff done. I'm going to make deals for the American people. My prosperity becomes your prosperity. Make America great again.

    So, insofar as his base feels like it is yet prosperous under a Trump administration and can continue to prosper, regardless of the tariffs and the negotiations with China, everything else, he's probably still OK.

    I think it has more to do with sentiment. Abraham Lincoln once said, with public — with public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed.

    So, as long as the sentiment is there, as long as the feeling that, we're still going to be prosperous, yes, he tweets too much, yes, I wish he wouldn't spar with the media so much, but I'm still doing OK economically, he may be just fine, despite all of these indicators.

  • William Brangham:

    Is that your sense about this too, Tam?

  • Tamara Keith:

    Yes, a lot of Trump voters I talk to say that very thing. Like, he could tweet less. I don't like some of the things he says.

  • William Brangham:

    Soften the edges a little.

  • Tamara Keith:

    But look at my 401(k).

    Well, if your 401(k) — if you looked at your 401(k) last Thursday, the same day that he had that rally that I covered, then you might be a little bit concerned.

    And if there is really a recession coming — and there's no way at this very moment to know that — and at the moment there's historically low unemployment and all these other things — that is a real — a recession is an incredibly hard thing to run on.

    And that is why he is concerned. That is why a White House official told me that they are — the official didn't say that this is why they are doing it, but a White House official did say that they are considering other potential tax cuts.

    And that — the reason the president is badgering his own Fed chairman on Twitter demanding a rate cut and quantitative easing is because the president is concerned about what a potential economic downturn, slowdown or recession could do for his reelection chances.

  • William Brangham:

    I want to turn to the issue of guns.

    We're just two weeks after El Paso and Dayton. In the immediate aftermath of those tragedies, as we have seen so many times, there was talk of background checks and red flag laws, and let's take those high-capacity magazines out of circulation.

    But now it already seems, 14 days out, that that talk is starting to dissipate.

    The president was asked about this just the other day. Let's take a listen to what he had to say.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Congress is working on that. They have bipartisan committees working on background checks and various other things. And we will see.

    I don't want people to forget that this is a mental health problem. But just remember this, big mental problem. And we do have a lot of background checks right now.

  • William Brangham:

    Joshua, it seems like we're already moving to sort of sequester this as not an issue that we're really going to worry about, or talk about, or legislate anything about.

  • Joshua Johnson:

    Well, this — we have come to this before.

    I mean, remember the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and we talked about banning bump stocks. There are also a few different factors here. One is that the students from Parkland are not quiet about this at all. They're still working behind the scenes. So I think the grassroots piece of this may manifest.

    Two is the fact that there was such a strong racially hateful component to the El Paso shooting, which brings up all these other cultural fault lines that also have to do with the president and his rhetoric. So that makes this a little bit hotter.

    The third one is the mental health component. There's no evidence to substantiate that people with any kind of mental health issue are more likely to commit murder. And then, when we talk about mental health, where's the threshold? Are you talking about someone who's been diagnosed, who's being treated, who's being medicated?

    For what medication? Are you going to screen people beforehand? Does that mean they can buy certain kinds of guns? What kinds of guns? Do you take the ones they have?

    I mean, I don't talk about this much, but I take medication for anxiety and depression and have since the beginning of the year.

  • William Brangham:

    Right. Should you be denied access to a gun?

  • Joshua Johnson:

    Right. Am I not allowed to own a firearm because I take Klonopin and Wellbutrin? And then why? And then how do I appeal it?

    It just — it begins to become a rabbit hole that may have legitimate policy answers. But is that really where we want to go? And is that where the debate falls apart?

    If you are a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, is that the hole you want to end up in? Or do you want to focus on your right to own a firearm? It just feels like it has the potential to degenerate into details, and then everyone ignores gun violence again, until someone else dies.

  • William Brangham:

    Joshua Johnson, Tamara Keith, thank you both.

  • Tamara Keith:

    You're welcome.

  • Joshua Johnson:

    You got it.

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