President Obama pleads for the Arizona shootings not to be used for “politics and point-scoring”, but – as Felicity Spector reports – the political debate is already hotting up.
In a moment of national tragedy – it was a unique moment for the President – to soar above all the politics and point scoring, and reach out to a country yearning for unity.
By all accounts, President Obama’s speech at the memorial service for the victims of the Tucson shooting was what many Americans were so desperate to hear: a nation’s refusal to be dragged down by ideological conflict and blame.
“If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.” he said.
For the 14,000-strong crowd who packed the arena at the University of Arizona – it was a chance not just to grieve, but to find solace in their strength. The cheers that peppered Obama’s address might have seemed incongruous – but according to the university’s President, Robert Sheldon – the applause was for the sense of compassion and healing.
If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate…let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle. President Obama
“This was not billed as a wake”, he told the US politics website Politico. “It was billed as a way to bring everyone together. The families are extraordinarily pleased by it. And maybe they’re the ultimate judges of what we’ve done here.”
For Obama, this was a chance to position himself above the political fray – and forge a far more emotional connection with the American people.
The tone of his address was in stark contrast with Sarah Palin‘s pronouncement the day before – as she responded to the tragedy after several days of unaccustomed silence. In a video on her website, she appeared almost presidential, a standard bearer for her party, deliberately posed in front of an American flag – almost as if this were a response to a State of the Union address.
But instead of calming the partisan debate, her defiant remarks about “blood libel” served to inflame it still further – illustrating the difficult choice facing her fellow Republicans in the run up to 2012.
The first of those contenders to speak out was the former Minnesota governor Tom Pawlenty, whose book tour gave him an instant chance to appear on the national stage – with a distinctly measured reaction.
While “we could all benefit from a more civil and thoughtful discourse in this country”, he said, there was no evidence the incident was anything other than a “senseless” act by a “mentally unstable person”. And he subtly criticised Sarah Palin’s notorious cross-hairs graphic, telling the New York Times: “It’s not a device I would have chosen to do.”
Others have proved less reluctant to plunge into the political debate: using talk radio as their medium of choice.
How about this for incendiary – falsely accusing innocent political opponents of promoting mass murder even before you know the facts. Republican Mike Huckabee
On a Chicago station, Newt Gingrich, disputed any links between the shooter and right wing extremism, describing him instead as Marxist, communist, and atheist.
“People who would immediately scream about ethnic profiling – people who, on the left, have every possible incentive to never allow anyone to draw conclusions – suddenly say things that are just factually untrue,” he said. “There’s no evidence that I know of that this person was anything except nuts.”
Mike Huckabee, on his radio show, struck a similar tone: “How about this for incendiary – falsely accusing innocent political opponents of promoting mass murder even before you know the facts.”
In Washington itself, the Capitol has been uncharacteristically quiet – all business was supsended by John Boehner immediately after the shooting – including the contentious debate on repealing Obama’s healthcare reforms.
Of course Congress will be back in business next week, and it remains to be seen how long the sense of political restraint will last.
Perhaps, despite Obama’s powerful appeal for unity, the shooting, and its aftermath, cannot be anything other than a profoundly political moment. As Howard Fineman put it on Huffington Post: “The 2012 Presidential campaign has begun, not in Iowa or New Hampshire, but in the bloody streets of Tucson.”