The all-too-familiar political arc of tragedy

April 16, 2013

Twenty four hours removed from the bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, an all-too-familiar pattern has begun to unfold in the political world.


The scene of the bombing at the Boston marathon on Monday.

First comes the pause, a cessation in normal political activities that is accompanied by calls to put aside partisanship and band together as Americans.

"On days like this there are no Republicans and Democrats," said President Obama in remarks to the nation Monday evening. "We are Americans united in concern for our fellow citizens."

That sentiment was echoed all over the political world as scads of events -- including the long-awaited press conference rolling out the Senate's bipartisan immigration reform bill -- were canceled out of respect for what had occurred in Boston.

Because politicians aren't acting political in the pause period, their approval ratings tend to soar.  This is especially true in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks when Congress and the White House experienced a period of stratospheric approval.

The pause period is also a time when politicians -- and the country as a whole -- wrestles with questions that can't be answered. What the hell is wrong with people? How safe (or unsafe) are we?  What can we do to prevent this from happening in the future? What if we can't?

That's a tough spot for politicians to be in; remember that politics is, at heart, a service industry and that when politicians can't help answer their constituents' questions it makes everyone ill at ease.

The rapid pace at which news -- and the collective American attention span -- moves nowadays means that the pause period is shorter than it was even ten years ago or even five years ago. Even 24 hours removed from the bombings, debates are surely happening in campaigns and congressional offices about when to resume some semblance of normal, official activities.

The end of the pause period leads into a sputtering re-start of normal political activities.  Politicians give speeches and may even raise money but do so always with a nod and a bow to the tragedy in Boston or Connecticut or Colorado.  The re-start period begins slowly as politicians and their staffs search for the right tone to take with a public who remains jarred from the images they have seen of chaos, panic and fear. It quickly picks up speed, however, as politicians' jobs remain to be done  -- tragedy or not. And, yes, part of their jobs is to raise money and position themselves politically for their next election.

(Sidebar: The pause and re-start periods take far longer to process in the areas directly affected by tragedy. The country moved on from Newtown long before Connecticut did. The same will hold true in Massachusetts.)

And then, sooner than you might think, politics as usual reasserts itself. While the pause and re-start periods feature speculation that something fundamental has changed in the culture and, therefore, in our politics, that's usually not the case.

One example: The murders of 20 children and six adults late last year in Connecticut was cast by many as a tipping point for the debate over guns and their role in society. But, less than four months removed from that horribleness, a stripped-down gun bill is struggling to make it off the ground in the Senate.

Our politics is less affected by outside events -- even massive ones like Newtown or Boston -- than we typically believe in the immediate aftermath of these tragedies. The tendency to assume "everything has changed" is usually off base. In fact, the opposite -- "nothing has changed" -- is far more often true.

The terribly sad thing not to be lost in all of this is that we have so many recent mass tragedies from which to draw these about the way politics and politicians react in their wake.

NBC's Tom Brokaw put it best on Monday night. "I have been thinking today about my children and grandchildren who will never know the days of innocence I did," Brokaw said. "That you could go anywhere to any public event and not worry about an explosive device being detonated....that is the price of freedom and that is the world in which we live today."

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House for the newspaper and Web site.
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Scott Clement | April 16, 2013