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What Middle America is saying about climate change and gun violence

Catastrophic damage from Hurricane Dorian is putting natural disasters, and their potential connection to climate change, front and center in the U.S., but gun safety and a flood of Republican congressional retirements are also occupying public attention. Chris Buskirk of American Greatness and Colleen Nelson of the Kansas City Star join Judy Woodruff to discuss the politics of the three topics.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The worst fears are coming true about the devastating nature of Hurricane Dorian. There is a new report this hour is that the death toll in the Bahamas is now up to 20 people.

    The hurricane and what it says about climate change, along with guns in the aftermath of repeated mass shootings in this country, and yet more retirements by Republican members of Congress, are just a few of the issues we want to raise now with two people who watch public opinion closely from the middle of America.

    They are Chris Buskirk, editor of the conservative journal and Web site American Greatness. He's in Phoenix. And Colleen Nelson, she is the editorial page editor for the Kansas City Star newspaper. And she joins us from Kansas City, Missouri.

    Hello to both of you. We thank you for being here on this Wednesday.

    I want to start by talking about Hurricane Dorian.

    I know that so much of the attention has been on the Southeastern U.S. coast. But with the severity of one hurricane after another — they're getting bigger. They're dropping more rain. They're creating more devastation.

    I want to — Chris Buskirk, there is more conversation now about climate change, the connection between climate change and what's happening to humans on the planet. Is it your sense that this is more of a voting issue for Americans than it was?

  • Chris Buskirk:

    I think that divides a little bit along sort of party and ideological affiliation. So it certainly is, I think, for Democrats.

    I think there is maybe a bit more for Republicans. What I can say, though, with regard to Republicans is that there is — how do I want to say this? There's sort of a frustration about the discussion of climate change, not do we believe it or do we not, but in the sense that it sometimes gets in the way of doing — of enacting legislation that is positive environmentalism.

    In other words, you don't have to believe or not believe in climate change to think, for instance, that it's a good idea to get the plastic out of the ocean. And, sometimes, these things become an impediment to what could actually be really positive environmental legislation that everybody could support.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So you're saying some Republicans are reluctant to support measures, even though they may not have any connection to the term or the idea of climate change?

  • Chris Buskirk:

    Yes, I'm saying — I guess what — and this — I hear this a lot. Five years ago, I probably never would have heard it.

    In the past year or so, I hear it more and more, is, like, why — why is the debate always stalled over who believes in manmade climate change and who doesn't, as opposed to, hey, this would be good policy? You don't have to believe or disbelieve in climate change to think that some of these policy ideas are good policy ideas, and actually would promote a healthier environment for everybody.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Colleen Nelson, is there really a difference there? How do you see this?

  • Colleen Nelson:

    Well, I think you're hearing more and more discussion about this issue.

    And there are deepening concerns about climate change. And at least at the local level, this is becoming less of a partisan concern and just more of a pragmatic issue. And in the absence of action in Washington, D.C., you're seeing more and more local leaders saying, OK, we need to — we're the folks governing on the ground. We need to develop policies that create a sustainable environment and address the effects of climate change.

    And so, at the local level, a lot of people are just kind of setting Democratic, Republican party lines aside and saying, OK, as mayor of Kansas City, at Kansas City City Hall, what should we be doing to address climate change?

    And so there's not the same tenor of debate and partisan divide that you see in Washington, D.C.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Chris, when you said a moment ago it's more of an issue for Democrats, are you saying that's changing, truly?

  • Chris Buskirk:

    I think it's — yes, I think it's changing a bit, because what I have — what I have heard more about and something I have thought a lot about myself over the past couple years is, what does a — what does an environmentalism or a conservation movement look like that could be supported by people who identify as conservatives?

    And I start — when I start to think about the policy initiatives and things that could actually be done in real life, you talk about reforestation initiatives or ocean cleanup when it comes with regards to plastic, these sorts of things, there's a lot of conservatives who would get behind those discrete policy proposals in a heartbeat.

    And yet the conversation seems to always get stymied on, do you believe in climate change or do you not?

    Well, in a certain sense — and I know this is very important to people on the left — but we should all — we should take the wins where we can get them, where people can agree, regardless of why people think they're good policy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Colleen, I want to turn now to another subject that has — as I mentioned, has come up, and that is guns, in the wake of these almost weekly now mass shootings, yet another one in the last few days in Texas, the third mass shooting in that state — or in — or second in that state in the matter of 30 days.

    Is the conversation changing around that? Are you hearing more of a willingness by people who've been opposed to gun control to consider it now?

  • Colleen Nelson:

    The conversation is changing, in that we're having serious conversations both in Kansas and Missouri about, is there something that we can agree on, whether it's red flag laws or background checks?

    And — but there's still a really tough road to hoe there. And while folks here are very concerned about the mass shootings, we're also — this also falls against the backdrop of really huge problems with gun violence in Kansas City and Saint Louis.

    And, in Missouri, you see a real rural-urban divide on gun violence, with a lot of rural lawmakers basically saying, we're not willing to do anything, we're going to stick with very loose gun laws that we have in place in Missouri, while you have Kansas City and Saint Louis as two of the most dangerous cities in terms of homicide rates in the country.

    And so there's a really strong divide there. And the conversation is shifting a little bit, but not to the point where you're actually seeing action. Much like in D.C., in Missouri, a group of lawmakers has asked the governor to call a special session on gun violence.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Colleen Nelson:

    And so far, he's declined.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Chris, what about that? I mean, at the national level, a lot of conversation, members of Congress urging the president to do something.

    Mitch McConnell, the leading Republican, the majority leader in the Senate, saying, I'm not going to do something unless I know for a fact the president's going to sign it.

  • Chris Buskirk:

    Yes, what I hear a lot is, obviously, these mass shootings are horrific, and people are really struggling with a couple things.

    One is, how do you just sort of psychologically deal with the fear that comes out of something that's so random? That's what people, I think, can't — have a hard time, myself included, is, how do you get your mind around something that you can't predict at all?

    And then trying to balance that against sensible policy. You have — for instance, in 2018, you had about 110 people killed from these sort of random mass shootings in the United States, 110.

    And then, on the other hand, you want to balance that against people's legitimate right to protect themselves. There were something like 1.3 million defensive uses of firearms in the United States last year.

    And you say, on the one hand, we want to figure out what to do about mass shootings, but is it the guns? Is it the people? Is it a mental health issue?

    And I think we need to understand those issues better. And that's something that everybody wants to do. And focusing on the guns, I think, is not — is — maybe is one part of it, but there are other variables that need to be focused on as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Colleen, where are we on this? It sounds like you're both saying you don't necessarily see movement to do anything about guns.

  • Colleen Nelson:

    There's not immediate movement in Missouri or Kansas.

    And, obviously, the entire country is watching and waiting on Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. Clearly, state lawmakers could act. But Kansas and Missouri remain very red states. Trump won in Missouri and Kansas by 19 and 20 points, respectively.

    And so the folks who are leading Kansas and Missouri aren't inclined to enact a lot of gun control measures at this point. So, even though this has elevated the conversation and created a sense of urgency, that hasn't — that isn't likely to be followed with action immediately.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last thing I quickly want to raise with both of you is the increasing number of retirements we're seeing from Republican members of Congress.

    Chris Buskirk, just a few moments ago, we learned Jim Sensenbrenner, veteran lawmaker from the state of Wisconsin — he served 40 years — he's announced he's not returning. I think the number is up to 14 or 15 at this point.

    What does it say about your party — not your party, the Republican Party? And what does it say about the president?

  • Chris Buskirk:

    I think — I'm not sure what it says about the party.

    I mean, Sensenbrenner, he's — 40 years. He did his time. Some of these — some of these other retirements, I think, are a little bit maybe on point for what you're asking about.

    Look, it's just — it's tough to be in Congress right now. It's tough to be in D.C. in general, especially for the House members. If you're in the minority, you really don't have anything to do. And so if you don't see a prospect of getting back into the majority, you think, well, what am I going to do with my life?

    And some of these guys are looking for a way to go out back into the private sector. And I can hardly blame them. I think what the challenge is for Republicans now is, how do you get good candidates to replace them? That is — that's really going to be tough.

    And I think it makes — I think it makes 2020 an uphill battle for Republicans to retake the House, which I know is what people wanted to do. But it's not getting any easier.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Just 15 seconds, Colleen.

    What does it look like from your perspective for Republicans in these races?

  • Colleen Nelson:

    Well, particularly — Republicans, particularly in suburban areas, are looking at the reality of how Trump is playing in the suburbs, particularly with women, and their prospects don't look good.

    They see what happened in November 2018, and they fear the worst. And looking ahead another year-and-a-half of potentially Congress doing nothing, that doesn't set them up well heading into the 2020 election.

    And so it certainly makes sense that some of these Republicans would be making a calculation that it's simply not worth running and losing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Seems like we're seeing almost an announcement a day at this rate. We will see where it goes.

    Colleen Nelson, thank you very much from Kansas City, Missouri, Chris Buskirk, joining us from Phoenix. Thank you both.

  • Chris Buskirk:

    Thank you.

  • Colleen Nelson:

    Thank you.

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