The morning after the shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others, a Republican strategist wondered what the violence might mean for the political debate in Washington. “Is this Oklahoma City, or is this Virginia Tech?” he asked.
It's a good question. Some Democrats believe it is Oklahoma City, where in 1995 an angry militiaman blew up the Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 people. In the aftermath of that attack, President Bill Clinton, on the ropes politically after losing Congress to Republicans in 1994, mounted a comeback by portraying leading GOP figures — Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and others — as dangerous extremists. Now some Democrats hope Barack Obama, trying to recover from his own political setback in November, might be able to take similar advantage of the Arizona attack.
Republicans, on the other hand, see the violence in Arizona as Virginia Tech, where in 2007 a severely mentally ill college student killed 32 people for reasons that never made any sense. The big question in the aftermath of those murders was not the future course of the nation but rather how someone so crazy could have gotten so many weapons.
One incident deeply affected politics in Washington, while the other didn't.
In the hours after the first news flash from Tucson, Republicans were stunned by media commentary implicating the GOP, the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, Limbaugh and others in the murders. It seemed incomprehensible that accused shooter Jared Loughner, who appeared to be deeply mentally ill and fit into no recognizable political category, could somehow be portrayed, without evidence, as a Republican-inspired killer.
“Nobody knows what [Loughner's] thinking was,” the GOP strategist said. “This person was clearly unstable. This is an abhorrent act. The fact that people are assigning motivations when they have no clue about this person's motivation is just reprehensible. If they're going to take this and try to politicize it based on someone who is clearly unstable, to me that's just …”
His voice trailed off for a moment. “This is just an irresponsible reaction,” he continued. “This is stunning.”
But it wasn't stunning. What conservative or Republican could have failed to predict that, if there were such an incident, a significant amount of media commentary would blame it on the right?
Meanwhile, the most powerful man in the Republican Party, House Speaker John Boehner, was busy with institutional — not political — duties. Boehner was at his home in West Chester, Ohio, when he got word of the attack Saturday afternoon, and he spent the hours that followed on House responsibilities. Should lawmakers receive some sort of special protection in their home districts? Should security be increased in the Capitol? What were the “reasonable and prudent precautions,” in the words of Capitol Police, that members should take to protect themselves?
Throughout Saturday afternoon, Boehner was in touch with Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House Sergeant of Arms, the FBI director and, later, the president. He left a phone message for Giffords' husband, Captain Mark Kelly, and released a statement asserting that “an attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve.” The next day, Sunday, was filled with more institutional work.
Meanwhile, the blame-placing picked up steam. On Monday, a New York Times editorial claimed Loughner was “part of a widespread squall of fear, anger and intolerance that has produced violent threats against scores of politicians and infected the political mainstream with violent imagery.” The paper went on to point the finger straight at the GOP: “It is legitimate to hold Republicans and particularly their most virulent supporters in the media responsible for the gale of anger that has produced the vast majority of these threats.” The commentary got rougher on cable TV and the Internet.
Amid all the blaming, Republican officeholders face a choice: fight back or go about their work. Most are working. “The fact is, the media reflexively go there without being prompted,” one GOP aide said with a sigh. “So there's only so much we can control. What we can control is what we say, and what we do to elevate the debate and undermine those who try and exploit it for political reasons.”
In the end, GOP leaders believe the frenzy of accusation will fade. “I just have faith that the American public will see through it all,” the GOP strategist said. That might be true, or it might be hopelessly naive. Republicans are betting it's true.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.