Rep. Paul Broun, a conservative from northeast Georgia and one of President Obama's most hardline critics in Congress, received this shocking question from a town hall attendee Tuesday night: "Who is going to shoot Obama?"
According to the Athens Banner-Herald, Mr. Broun, a two-term congressman, addressed the question by saying, "I know there's a lot of frustration with this president," and by pointing to next year's election as an opportunity to elect "somebody that's going to be a conservative, limited-government president ... who will sign a bill to repeal and replace ObamaCare."
In a statement Friday, Broun said, "I deeply regret that this incident happened at all. Furthermore, I condemn all statements – made in sincerity or jest – that threaten or suggest the use of violence against the President of the United States or any other public official. Such rhetoric cannot and will not be tolerated." Broun also said his office "took action with the appropriate authorities."
Coming about a month after the shooting of Broun's colleague, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), in Tucson, Ariz., and a national debate about heated political rhetoric, the incident has pushed Broun suddenly into the spotlight, with critics saying he should have condemned the question or pushed back more forcibly. Politicians' failure to do so, they say, can inadvertently give the impression that they promote unacceptable, even dangerous, ideas.
"It would have been far better for him to have immediately rejected the question," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University, in Atlanta. "The question shouldn't have been asked, and he should have responded by saying it was inappropriate."
In 2008, Republican presidential contender John McCain pushed back against anti-Obama rhetoric and urged his followers to tone down their criticisms, which he worried could hurt his campaign. Senator McCain braved boos at a Minnesota town hall event to confront a woman who said, "I can't trust Obama ... he's an Arab." McCain seized the microphone from the woman and replied, "No, ma'am. He's a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign is all about. He's not" an Arab.
But Broun may see himself as even more of a maverick than McCain. In May 2009, he proposed a bill to make 2010 "The Year of the Bible." When asked on a radio show whether he believed Mr. Obama is a US citizen and a Christian, Broun, a devout Baptist, answered, "I don't know." He criticized Obama's proposal to create a civilian national service corps, saying it would lay the groundwork for a Marxist dictatorship.
"When he's proposing to have a national security force that's answering to him, that is as strong as the US military, he's showing me signs of being Marxist," Broun told the Associated Press. He later expanded his comments, saying, "I'm not comparing him to Adolf Hitler. What I'm saying is there is the potential of going down that road."
His criticism of Obama has continued. During Obama's 2011 State of the Union address, Broun tweeted, "Mr. President, you don't believe in the Constitution. You believe in socialism."
Broun, who carries a US Constitution with him at all times, was also one of three of lawmakers who voted against a law banning animal crush videos such as ones that showed women in high heels stomping on kittens. He condemned the practice, but he noted that the Constitution gives the federal government limited criminal justice powers and that crush videos are already covered by state animal cruelty laws.
Elected by a hair's breadth in a special 2007 election, Broun, a medical doctor from Athens, Ga., quickly became a political favorite in the mountainous parts of northeast Georgia, where distrust of the federal government runs deep. He was reelected in 2010 with 67 percent of the vote against his challenger, Democrat Russell Edwards.
His views, in turn, draw in constituents with similar hardline views about the limits of federal power, says political scientist Charles Bullock of the University of Georgia, who knows Broun and lives in his district.
"Paul lays down his ideological markers, and he's going to stand with it. So that may mean that, yeah, he's going to have a more conservative turnout at a meeting even than a lot of other conservatives," says Professor Bullock. "Because Paul takes a position that's pretty far to the right in terms of the American continuum, probably a disproportionate share of people who make contact with him are also on that part of the spectrum."
Nevertheless, Bullock says, Broun's response should be viewed in context of the circumstances: an oddball question by a political supporter in a public meeting, accompanied, in this case, by laughs from the audience.
"There are questions like that which can catch you flat-footed, and you have to say something and you have to say it immediately, and then you look at it afterward and say, 'I could've handled that better,' " Bullock says. "It would not be fair to paint Broun as tolerating anything like that, although his views are pretty far to the right and sometimes outside the mainstream, and he has some underlying assumptions about the world which many people would question."