Mitch McConnell has set a trap for Democrats
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Shutterstock)

Do Democrats want to lose elections?

As I watched news reports on President Joe Biden's response to gun reform in the wake of the mass shooting at a Texas elementary school, that was my soul-crushing question.

"I think there's a realization on the part of rational Republicans" that it's bad news to have one mass shooting after another in this country, Biden told reporters. "I think things have gotten so bad," Biden argued, that Republicans might actually be willing to pass something this time. When Biden went to Uvalde to mourn the 21 lives lost at Robb Elementary school, onlookers chanted "do something." Biden even went so far as to promise that "we will."

This notion that some kind of gun control will soon pass Congress appears to have been stoked by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who Biden explicitly named as a "rational" Republican on Monday. McConnell told CNN that he is "hopeful that we could come up with a bipartisan solution" and directed Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas to take the lead on negotiations. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who represented Newtown while in the House, has been running around telling reporters, "I'm at the table in a more significant way right now with Republicans" than in the past. The New York Times reports that a "bipartisan group of 10 senators working on the issue was to have a Zoom call on Tuesday" to start the process.

RELATED: Republicans' "solutions" to mass shootings are meant to make you feel helpless

So political observers who have watched how Republicans operate for the past decade or so are all asking the same question: How stupid are Democrats to think that these "negotiations" are the real deal?

Mitch McConnell is faking negotiations to build up hope and dash it — creating a "Democrats are impotent" narrative.

It's not mysterious what McConnell, whose main political weapon is obstruction, is doing here. He's setting up a bunch of fake negotiations to get Democrats all excited about the possibility of passing something. Those Democrats will then talk to reporters about how they're making progress. Voters will get their hopes up that something will get done. When it inevitably doesn't – because Republicans never intended to pass any bill of any kind — the blame will fall on Democrats for being weak and ineffectual leaders. Demoralized Democratic voters will sit at home for the midterms and Republicans will win big at the polls.

We can know this is the plan, because this is always how McConnell operates: Blocking Democrats from passing popular legislation and then peddling a story about Democratic impotence. The Republican leader doesn't win elections by winning over voters to the Republican Party. His strategy, instead, is to get large numbers of Americans to give up on politics entirely. The result is that Fox News addicts and QAnon-addled mouth breathers are overrepresented among those who do bother to vote.

Want more Amanda Marcotte on politics? Subscribe to her newsletter Standing Room Only.

As Paul Krugman of the New York Times wrote last year, most voters pay very little attention to politics and thus, "tend to support the incumbent party when things are going well, oppose it if things are going badly — even if the positive or negative events have no conceivable relationship to that party's actions." So the Republican strategy has always been to "make bad things happen" when Democrats are technically in charge, knowing Democrats will take the blame. That's why they sabotaged Barack Obama's efforts at fixing the economy when he was president. It's why Republican propagandists encouraged their voters to refuse vaccination and extend the pandemic. And as I wrote last week, mass shootings are particularly effective for Republicans in their goal of demoralizing people who might otherwise turn out to vote against them.

Mass shootings generate the chaotic and depressing political environment that Republicans thrive in. Many of the voters who disagree with them see the go-nowhere nature of the gun debate, get frustrated, and then don't bother voting. Republican voters, however, are easily ginned up with stories, which are sadly false, about how Democrats are coming to take their guns away, which those voters receive as a personal attack on their very identity. So mass shootings work wonders to depress Democratic voters and stir up Republican voters. Thus Republicans have no interest in making mass shootings a thing of the past.

RELATED: "Dystopian future": Republicans cry "communism" after Canada cracks down on guns after mass shooting

In the Republican task of demobilizing the Democratic base, pretending to be interested in gun legislation is a great weapon. As Jonathan Weisman of the New York Times wrote, failure to pass gun legislation "would be lumped onto a growing pile of disappointments that have depressed Democratic voter enthusiasm since the party took control of Washington."

Democrats in Congress have failed to pass Build Back Better, voting rights legislation, codification of abortion rights, and other Democratic priorities. And now they're going to fail to pass gun restrictions, but only after Republicans trick them into running to the press to claim that they're making progress. Getting hopes up and dashing them is an excellent way to frustrate progressive voters into giving up altogether, which is exactly why Republicans are playing this game with Democrats.

In one sense, McConnell is being a rational Republican. But not in the way that Biden defines "rational," which is someone who thinks murder is bad and wants to stop it. In the sociopathic sense of the word "rational," it's very much in McConnell's self-interest to feign interest in a gun compromise only to blow it up at the last minute.

What is not rational is Democrats believing McConnell's fake overtures.

Mitch McConnell has a long and storied history of being both a liar and an obstructionist. Only a fool would believe he has any intention of actually passing a gun safety bill before the midterms, or ever.

Want more Amanda Marcotte on politics? Subscribe to her newsletter Standing Room Only.

As I noted last week, polling shows that the majority of voters characterize Republicans as hateful bigots, but when asked what they think of Democrats, they respond with "weak." Given the choice between the two parties, a lot of people will take option number three: Don't bother voting.

It's not at all clear why Democrats are eagerly participating in their own political sabotage by engaging with the GOP con artists like this. The argument for participating in the fake negotiations is that there's a slim (I'd say impossible) chance that Republicans mean it this time, and well, Democrats have to try, don't they? But that assumes that working with Republicans is the only option on the table, and it simply is not. Biden could fulfill his promise to do something through executive action. Indeed, his own vice president, Kamala Harris, has argued that the president could, under existing law, close the gun show loophole without Congress. The law is written in such a way that one could argue that gun shows and online dealers already constitute the mass sellers that are required by law to conduct background checks on buyers. An executive order directing federal agencies to interpret the law that way would make it much harder for people with criminal backgrounds to buy guns, all while bypassing Congress.

Instead, it looks like the Democratic plan is to let Republicans waste time and drive up hopes of federal legislation, only to watch Republicans blow it all up at the last minute. After another round of "Democrats fail" headlines, Republicans can go into the midterms arguing that Democrats are inept leaders. That might not win Republicans more votes, but it doesn't need to. All that matters is suppressing Democratic turnout, and on that front, Republicans are doing a great job. The only question is why Democrats are so eager to help them.