In the face of tragedy, the job of political leaders is to set the moral tone, offer words of comfort, project authority – and leave the politics to others.
President Obama and Rep. John Boehner, the newly installed Republican speaker of the House, have done just that in the days following the shooting rampage Saturday in Tucson, Ariz., that took the lives of six people and injured 13 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona. She remains in critical condition in a Tucson hospital after being shot in the head.
When news of the Tucson tragedy broke, Mr. Obama moved swiftly, following perceptions that he had reacted slowly in the "underwear bomber" case on Christmas Day 2009 and with the BP oil spill last summer. Saturday afternoon, he made an in-person statement on the incident and sent FBI director Robert Mueller to Tucson to oversee the federal investigation. On Sunday, he called for a national moment of silence at 11 a.m. Monday, which he and White House staff will observe from the South Lawn.
“It will be a time for us to come together as a nation in prayer or reflection, keeping the victims and their families closely at heart,” Obama said in a statement.
The president also signed a proclamation ordering that flags be flown at half-staff, and postponed a Tuesday trip to Schenectady, N.Y. The White House released photos portraying a president in charge, one showing him leading a meeting in the Situation Room (including his new chief of staff, William Daley), another of him talking on the phone with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R).
Speaker Boehner and the rest of the congressional leadership of both parties came out with statements of sober concern and no partisanship.
“An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve,” Boehner has said more than once since the shootings. He and Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) ordered flags flown at half-staff over the Capitol, in honor of an aide to Congresswoman Giffords, Gabe Zimmerman, who died in the attack. Legislative activity, including consideration of a bill to repeal Obama’s health-care reform, is postponed for the week. In a bipartisan conference call with lawmakers, Boehner announced he has arranged for law enforcement to conduct security overviews for members.
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.
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.