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Arizona shootings have immediate impact on the political conversation in Washington

By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 9:52 PM

This was supposed to be the week of another "showdown" in Congress. Now, the very word makes politicians squeamish.

The shootings in Arizona resounded in Washington with a deep and immediate impact on the political conversation. As is the case with such shocking collective national moments, the attacks prompted a dramatic - if temporary - stand-down in the partisan battles that have consumed the capital.

Instead of a vote to repeal President Obama's health-care law, Republican leaders in the House have scheduled prayers and security briefings. On Sunday talk shows, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle stressed their friendships and mutual respect. One freshman House member suggested more hugs, less name-calling.

Web sites that featured politicians as targets were scrubbed, and rhetoric softened.

It is prime time for groups such as Third Way, of which critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) is an honorary co-chairman, and No Labels, which call for Republicans and Democrats to back off their partisan impulses and angry tone.

"Politics has become too personal, too nasty and perhaps too dangerous," Third Way President Jonathan Cowan said in a statement.

"We are heartened by the outpouring of concern and respect from all corners of the political world. Perhaps out of this senseless act some sense can return to our public discourse."

The scolding came from outside Washington as well. Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Pima County, where the shootings occurred, was being applauded for condemning "all this vitriol" in the nation's political discourse.

"This may be free speech, but it's not without consequences," Dupnik said at a press briefing.

There is, at this point, no evidence that the suspect in Saturday's shootings that left six dead and Giffords and 13 others wounded was influenced by inflammatory political rhetoric, or that any voices that motivated him were outside his own head.

But the attacks have prompted soul-searching among some, and a belief from legislative leaders that unified actions rather than divisive votes should mark their public response.

"This is a time for the House to lock arms, both in condemnation of this heinous act and in prayer for those killed and wounded in this attack," House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a conference call joined by an extraordinary 800 people - members of Congress and their spouses and staffers.

"At a time when an individual has shown us humanity at its worst, we must rise to the occasion for our nation and show Congress at its best."

House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) said on CBS's "Face the Nation" that the shootings, whatever their motivation, will cause politicians to more closely examine their rhetoric.

"I don't think there's any doubt but my colleagues are very concerned about the environment in which they are now operating," Hoyer said. "It's been a much angrier, confrontational environment over the last two or three years than we have experienced in the past. I think there is worry about that."

Rep. Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.) said Sunday night that he plans to introduce a bill that would give members of Congress and federal officials the same protections from threatening language and symbolism that are afforded to the president under Title 18, Section 871 of the U.S. Code.

"It's not a wake-up call, it's a four-alarmer," Brady said of the Tucson shootings, adding that he last spoke with Giffords on Friday, the day before the attacks. Asked about the cross-hairs imagery used by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin's PAC during the 2010 midterm elections, Brady said the imagery was an example of how political rhetoric and discourse have taken a turn for the negative.

"I think we should make it that people can't do that," he said. "There was a cross hair on Gabby Giffords, and where's she at now? . . . I don't know if we're giving people ideas by doing something like that, but we've got to do something to make that criminal."

Palin supporters said it was ridiculous to believe that the map, now removed from the Internet, could incite violence.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) mentioned Palin on CNN and her evocative message of "don't retreat; reload."

"These sorts of things, I think, invite the kind of toxic rhetoric that can lead unstable people to believe this is an acceptable response," Durbin said.

Republicans said that was nonsense, and conservative activists noted that violent language was a staple of political rhetoric, equally employed by Democrats and Republicans.

To wit: Barack Obama's tough talk at a Philadelphia fundraiser in 2008 about how he would take the battle to the GOP: "If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun."

Some commentators said the debate was silly.

"For as long as I've been alive, crosshairs and bull's-eyes have been an accepted part of the graphical lexicon when it comes to political debates," media critic Jack Shafer wrote on the online magazine Slate.

"Such 'inflammatory' words as targeting, attacking, destroying, blasting, crushing, burying, knee-capping, and others have similarly guided political thought and action. Not once have the use of these images or words tempted me or anybody else I know to kill."

But in large part, the discussion Sunday tried to skirt both partisan blame and effects of political rhetoric in favor of a cooling of the talk.

On a roundtable with House members on NBC's "Meet the Press," both Democrats and Republicans pledged civility.

"I feel like that we need to realize as, as members of Congress, as Americans, that true tolerance is not pretending you have no differences," said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) "It's being kind and decent to each other in spite of those differences."

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) stressed his personal friendship with Franks. "But what has happened to the debate is one person or one side - Republicans or, or Democrats, it doesn't matter - they say, 'I'm right and you're evil,' " Cleaver said. "And that is what's damaging this country."

The House members said Giffords was not a practitioner of such politics.

"We have 435 members of Congress," said Cleaver. "If you rank them in terms of volatility, Gabby is probably in the last one-half of1 percent."

As the House this week puts aside health care and takes up a resolution honoring those injured and killed, comity may prevail. For how long is a different question.

Democratic pollster and consultant Mark Mellman said members of Congress are "properly shocked and appalled" by the shootings, and responding by saying all the right things about the nature of political discourse.

"History suggests, however, that will be a pretty temporary phenomenon," he said.

barnesb@washpost.com Staff writers Paul Kane, Ben Pershing, Lois Romano and Felicia Sonmez and staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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