Gabrielle Giffords shooting: a leadership moment for Obama, Boehner
Gabrielle Giffords tragedy – and that of 19 others killed or wounded during a mass shooting Saturday – puts special demands on President Obama and new House Speaker John Boehner.
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But swirling around this island of solemn nonpartisanship is a barrage of charges and countercharges by members of Congress and political activists over what led to this tragedy, including suggestions that the gunman was responding to hyped up rhetoric – some of it from tea partyers – that encouraged violence. By various accounts the suspect, Jared Loughner, has mental problems and espoused a confused antigovernment ideology, but that hasn’t prevented Democrats from pointing a suggestive finger at the populist tea party movement and one of their heroes, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose PAC had targeted Giffords for defeat last November with a graphic use of bulls-eyes (and which an aide now calls “surveyor’s marks”). Republicans and tea party supporters have responded in kind, citing examples of Obama’s use of overblown rhetoric when speaking of political opponents.Skip to next paragraph
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Still, the onus is on the Republicans to keep the narrative of “tea party as extremists” from settling in the mainstream public consciousness as fact, just as they incorporate new members backed by the tea party movement into their congressional caucuses. It’s a scenario reminiscent of the 1995 bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City at the hands of domestic terrorists, which allowed Democrats to paint a picture of a big-tent GOP that includes extremists.
The magnitude of the Oklahoma City attack, in which 168 people died, was far greater than the one in Tucson. For President Bill Clinton, the bombing represented a turning point in his presidency, as he captured and gave voice to the national sense of mourning and anger.
For Obama, Tucson may not be a turning point, but it’s an opportunity to take the high road while other Democrats suggest that some Republicans have engaged in over-the-top rhetoric that can create an atmosphere of violence.
“It is of course commonplace for presidents to use surrogates to take the low road, especially when they don’t want to soil their skirts with that level of discourse,” says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas, Austin.
"The phrase 'don't retreat, reload,' putting cross hairs on congressional districts as targets, these sort of things, I think, invite the kind of toxic rhetoric that can lead unstable people to believe this is an acceptable response," Senator Durbin said.