Yesterday's massacre at a public appearance by US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords offers plenty of opportunity for political maneuvering. A story in Politico today has one example, typically attributed to an anonymous source:
One veteran Democratic operative, who blames overheated rhetoric for the shooting, said President Barack Obama should carefully but forcefully do what his predecessor did.
“They need to deftly pin this on the tea partiers,” said the Democrat. “Just like the Clinton White House deftly pinned the Oklahoma City bombing on the militia and anti-government people.”
Leaving aside the appropriateness of the quote, I'm not sure how practical Mr. Veteran Democratic Operative's advice is. Did Bill Clinton really succeed in using the Oklahoma City bombing to discredit "anti-government people"? If he did, it must have been a brief victory, as they seem to be more numerous than ever.
People don't let go of their political beliefs that easily. So I don't expect the attempted assassination of Giffords (in photo) to prompt many people to switch parisan allegiences over the short or long term. Obama isn't going to be helped by waving the bloody shirt of Tucson, Arizona, every time things don't go his way in Congress.
But he can "take advantage" of Tucson in another way. And that is to promote greater participation in American politics. It's been suggested (on Twitter and other forums) that one response to the tragedy is to attend the next town meeting, forum, etc. held by elected officials in your area. That's a good idea; so are other forms of engaging in politics, even if they're partisan. (Shootings by nutjobs do not mean that we all have to embrace "No Labels" or rigidly centrist politics that usually amount to protecting the status quo.) It's appropriate for Obama to urge Americans to show support for "ballots" over "bullets" rather than retreat into frightened silence. Such a move may play to his strengths -- he seems to fare better in high-turnout, heightened-interest political contests -- but there's no real argument against it in a democracy.
As for firearm- and violence-related imagery, I agree that it's used too casually in American political discourse, but I'm not sure that's what prompts people like Jared Loughner to start shooting.
Worse, there seems to be a growing appetite for conspiracy theories. A lot of us find it amusing to speculate how every election that didn't go our way was stolen, or that every politician who disappointed us must be a mole for the other side. It's a kind of gallows humor that helps us deal with defeat. But we seem to have reached some kind of tipping point where a lot of us simply refuse to accept defeat as reality. The comforting delusion that we can never lose, but can only have victory stolen from us, is far more dangerous than Sarah Palin's "lock and reload" tweets.
George Packer writes about this in The New Yorker, and here I have to drop any pretense of partisan even-handedness. I will say that there's a real danger of the left wing responding in kind, but at the moment the "illegitimate" card is being played mostly be the right:
for the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents. Not just arguing against their opponents, but doing everything possible to turn them into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale. Instead of “soft on defense,” one routinely hears the words “treason” and “traitor.” The President isn't a big-government liberal—he's a socialist who wants to impose tyranny. He's also, according to a minority of Republicans, including elected officials, an impostor.