Clinton's call to unity won't be heeded — and she knows it. After all, Donald Trump, her foe in the fall presidential election, has already demanded President Obama's resignation over his handling of the Orlando attacks and offered himself congratulations via social media for being right about the threat posed by Islamist radicals.
That doesn't mean Clinton's speech is pointless. What it does is remind anyone paying attention of the remarkable smallness of our politics and how they have shrunk ever smaller in the decade and a half since Sept. 11, 2001.
Clinton is right that in the days following those attacks the country — and its government — came together. For much of that next three months or so, Congress worked in a bipartisan manner to take actions in response to the attacks. Congressional approval soared. Some longtime observers wondered whether the country had moved beyond partisan gridlock. (That's not to say everything done at the time looks perfect or even close to it in the afterglow of history. The signing of the Patriot Act, which came roughly six weeks after 9/11, remains a major point of contention, for example.)
Still, 15 years (or so) after those events, the reaction to another national tragedy was far different. (NOTE: I am not directly equating the death of thousands on 9/11 with the deaths of 49 people in Orlando. But how the two political parties react to moments of national mourning, which these events both clearly were, is telling.)
Republicans, led by Trump, seized on the threat posed by groups like the Islamic State, which the man who committed the Orlando murders had pledged allegiance to in a 911 before the shootings. Democrats insisted that the real culprit was the availability of high-powered weapons like the one the man used in Florida. Clinton, even in her speech calling for unity, proposed closing the gun show loophole among other methods that she argued would keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.
The idea of coming together on any sort of legislation — whether focused on guns, the threat from ISIS or any other tangential issue related to the killings — feels totally unrealistic. And this is within 48 hours of the single largest mass shooting in American history.
Resignation at the dysfunctional nature of our current political system was etched all over President Obama's face — and interwoven in his words — during a public statement about the shootings Monday. Here's the key passage from those remarks:
My concern is that we start getting into a debate, as has happened in the past, which is an either/or debate, and the suggestion is either we think about something as terrorism and we ignore the problems with easy access to firearms or it's all about firearms and we ignore the role, the very real role, that organizations like ISIL have in generating extremist views inside this country ...... my hope is that over the next days and weeks that we are being sober about how we approach this problem, that we let the facts get determined by our investigators, but we also do some reflection in terms of how we can best tackle what is going to be a very challenging problem, not just here in this country, but around the world.
Notice what's not in there? Any specific proposals for Congress to consider. Why? Because Obama has been down this road before — most notably in the aftermath of the massacre of 20 first-graders and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012. What he has learned is that the idea of putting aside politics or uniting for a common purpose is simply not possible in our current political system.
Our government can barely do the basics of what is required of it — fund the government, etc. — because of partisan bickering. The idea that issues as freighted with political consequence as guns or terrorism might be addressed by such a political body is laughable.
To some (many?), that gridlock is a good thing. They believe that when government tries to act in the wake of major national events like Orlando, the results are often detrimental — and unforeseen. Which I get and which history affirms. The problem is that the decision either to act or not to act isn't actually a decision at all. It's simply the accepted norm. We can't talk about any of these things in a way that could be productive or meaningful, so better to retreat to partisan corners than have the conversation at all.
That is a very bad thing for not only our politics but our broader democracy. Agreeing to agree is fine. So is agreeing to disagree. But both of those results require talking with one another first. We don't do that — not on an everyday basis and not even following a tragedy like what happened in Orlando. We prefer to shout talking points by one another — and then wonder why the other side doesn't see it our way.
The smallness of our politics has long been a mismatch for the large-scale challenges facing the country. That mismatch comes into even sharper relief at moments like this.