As the nation remains transfixed by the horrific events in Tuscon, AZ, the inevitable political questions, finger-pointing and analysis unfolds. While reports stream in about the condition of critically wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), at the root of every conversation about the mass murder of innocent Arizona 8th Congressional district constituents is why? Ultimately, the political calculus pushes its way into the explanation, and observers are straining to assess what this could mean, both short and long-term, for the future political climate.
The question of whether or not it’s an appropriate analysis in the wake of tragedy escapes the ugly political reality that modern American political discourse finds itself at a crossroads. And, every call for calm that uses the shooting as point of reference actually stirs polarized flames as critics on both sides look for blame.
Clearly, 22-year old Jared Loughner was inspired by a number of ideological influences, a preoccupation which led to an assassination attempt on a Member of Congress in broad daylight. But, the event has found Republicans and their conservative base on the defensive as the analysis backs them into a corner of unavoidable culpability. Since the 2008 elections, so much of the political conversation has centered on a creative and strategically calculated mix of volatile accusations: from the “birther” movement to health care reform “death panels;” from a sense among many conservatives that the Constitution is being violated to the impression that certain rights – such as “the right to bear arms” – are being completely circumvented.
In a politically cruel twist of fate and irony for the incoming House Republican majority, Loughner’s murderous shooting spree was in the wake of an unprecedented, GOP-pushed 2-hour reading of the Constitution on the House floor and an entire week of boasting conservative lawmakers itching to repeal health care reform in a scheduled January 12th vote.
A pragmatic House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), ever aware of the political ramifications, smartly postponed the repeal vote until the pain of the Tuscon tragedy had passed. “[T]he normal business of the House in the coming week has been postponed so that we can take necessary action regarding yesterday’s events,” said a sober Boehner during a Sunday event in West Chester, OH.
The delayed health care repeal vote, however, leaves Republicans in a tight fix as they carefully maneuver through the fragile sensibilities of a nation on edge. In terms of policy, the shooting leaves a temporary stain on any proposed legislation or issue that galvanized an energetic GOP base in the 2010 midterms. Politically, it places the House Republican majority in the crosshairs of an anxious public looking for both explanation and scapegoat. How that impacts Republican momentum for legislative victories in 2011 remains to be seen. How it influences the 2012 elections – for both President and Congress – is a guess too early.
There are signs in the first mourning week of a cooling down of conservative rhetoric. Even Tea Party activists preemptively assert that Loughner was not a member nor ever made a known appearance at a rally. Former Alaska Gov. and GOP firebrand Sarah Palin, typically cocked and ready to unload when political attacks are directed at her, is unusually reserved despite a litany of accusations from many Democrats and critics on the left that Loughner may have been motivated by forceful Palin rhetorical flourishes loosely using gun imagery. And Palin aides find themselves hastily removing the bulls-eye target on vulnerable Democratic districts from the SarahPAC website while furiously scrambling to explain past comments.
Yet, there are signs of defiance, as some prominent conservatives are quick to pounce back on the notion that they’re at the root of all political violence. “In continuing this template and narrative that the tea party and Sarah Palin, that talk radio and Fox News, are inspiring violence, they forget that, in the process of so doing, they are attacking what is now a majority of America,” said hotheaded conservative talk icon Rush Limbaugh in his description of criticisms from progressives. “They are accusing a majority of Americans of being accomplices to murder.”
“[W]e have a 22-year-old with no discernible politics,” wrote longtime Beltway conservative and Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist in a recent Politico Arena forum piece. “Violence is bad. Liberal Democrats blaming violence on conservatives is so old and anticipated it is now a cliché.”
Still, political pragmatists and strategists eager to expand Republican Congressional majorities and a foothold in the White House are among the most quiet, aware of the fact that everything said and done at the moment is under intense scrutiny. Palin’s silence, while predictably short-lived, is an indication that she’s considering long-term political options – including a tease play at Presidential speculation for 2012. And Congressional Republicans understand they’ll have to manage this window of tragedy with a pliable and politically correct touch.