The tragedy in Colorado suddenly altered the trajectory of the presidential campaign. In the hours after the Friday morning shooting, President Obama and Mitt Romney eloquently gave voice to the collective grief and shock felt across the country. Their campaign teams stood down, at least temporarily.
What the president and the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and their teams said and did Friday was appropriate. Beyond the measured rhetoric of the two leaders, both campaigns pulled down all their ads in Colorado, for the moment.
Sadly, this country has been through enough such episodes that there is now something of a playbook for politicians and political operatives in how to respond.
That’s not to suggest that the words that came from the president and his challenger were anything but genuine and heartfelt. The two candidates spoke as political leaders at a time the country looks for those in power (or aspiring to it) to help provide comfort and context to what is frightening and irrational.
But they also spoke as who they are, as parents, and in Romney’s case, as a grandparent. Each, no doubt, could imagine the horror of losing a child or grandchild in the early-morning hours Friday in the movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
“Michelle and I will be fortunate enough to hug our girls a little tighter tonight, and I’m sure you will do the same with your children,” Obama said in Florida.
“Each of us will hold our kids a little closer,” Romney said in New Hampshire.
The Colorado massacre came at a moment when the presidential campaign had become white-hot in its intensity and its negativity — at greater volume than the country has ever witnessed this far ahead of the election. The movie theater rampage forced a sudden and necessary change in plans. Campaigns try to construct narratives to shape reality and perceptions. The shooting was a shocking dose of reality that put all else in perspective.
The hiatus in the political wars will be temporary, by necessity. The country faces a very large decision in November, and both campaigns deserve the opportunity to make their cases as vigorously as they can. Not all of it will be pretty. Negative ads will not disappear; nor will the enormous and constant fundraising efforts required to fund those ads cease or even slow down in any significant way.
But at this moment of pause, it would be useful to recall the president’s words at the time of another such tragedy not so long ago.
It was at the beginning of this presidential cycle, in January 2011, after the shooting in Tucson that killed six people and left 13 wounded, including then-congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who has since resigned her seat while concentrating on her miraculous recovery.
Obama, in the role Americans now ask their presidents to play, spoke at the memorial service after the shooting.
At the time, the country in its shock was convulsed by a debate over whether political rhetoric and tactics had somehow encouraged the shooter. Had the deep partisanship and polarization helped create a climate that somehow invited violence? It was a time not only of grieving but also of finger-pointing and recrimination.
The circumstances of the shootings in Tucson and Aurora may be quite different, other than that a single individual with access to deadly weapons acted with evil and left a trail of dead and wounded in his wake. No one can explain why it happened — again. No one can assure it won’t happen again. Whether this episode will spark a call for tighter gun control is doubtful.
Unlike Tucson, no one has ascribed a political motive behind what happened in Aurora on Friday morning. One early report on ABC News incorrectly linked the alleged shooter to a tea party group. The report was quickly corrected, but it set off angry reactions among conservative bloggers and commentators.
So while the circumstances may be different, what Obama said that night in Tucson still bears repeating: “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 in the next news cycle.”
Something else the president said that night in January is noteworthy today. He spoke of Christina-Taylor Green, who at 9 was the youngest of the victims. She was just learning about government and democracy and public service.
Obama said she saw this world through eyes “undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted.” He went on to say: “I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it.”
Obama’s address drew praise across the political spectrum as one of the finest of his presidency. And, seemingly, it was quickly forgotten. The two parties plunged back into an even harsher period of partisan rancor over the country’s fiscal problems. That immediately gave way to the current campaign in which each side is prepared to blame the other for causing the negativity that has marked the opening phase of the general election.
The Tucson speech was meant for the time and place it was delivered. The debate and reflection that the Colorado shooting touches off likely will be different than that in the period after Tucson. But do the president and his Republican challenger have any responsibility to try to make the next 31 / 2 months something other than “the usual plane of politics and point-scoring and pettiness” that Obama decried in Tucson?
Changing the tone of the debate won’t stop future acts of senseless violence by deranged individuals. But the admonition to elevate the political discourse might at least provide some small check on the decisions of those working in the two campaigns or the actions of those in the political and journalistic communities or partisans on both sides.
Obama offered a more elemental thought in his brief remarks Friday. “What matters at the end of the day is not the small things,” he said, “It’s not the trivial things, which so often consume us and our daily lives. Ultimately, it’s how we choose to treat one another.”
That is more than soothing rhetoric. Already this presidential campaign has drawn criticism for its smallness in the face of the country’s problems. Will it be any different when it resumes after the pause forced by the shooting? Will Obama and Romney and their teams find a way, amid their impulses for hour-by-hour combat, to elevate the discourse and the country’s focus?
Campaigns are about winning. That’s the first objective of those involved. But at the end of the campaign will come the challenge of trying to govern a divided nation. Will the next months make that more or less difficult for the winner? And is there anything the two candidates can or will do to try to nudge things in that direction?
What Obama said in Tucson is good advice at this latest moment of tragedy and grief for the country.
For previous columns by Dan Balz, go to postpolitics.com.