WASHINGTON — Democrats, Republicans and independent groups across the ideological spectrum are seeking political profit from the shooting rampage in Arizona, often moderating their rhetoric in pursuit of their goals.
Often, but not always.
Two days after the Jan. 8 attack, the conservative Tea Party Express issued a fundraising appeal that said the accused gunman’s actions in the months leading to the shooting were “more consistent with Blame America First Liberals, not the tea party movement.”
Democrats, too, acted quickly to inject politics into the shooting. Within hours of the gunfire, they circulated a posting from Sarah Palin’s 2010 campaign website that showed crosshairs superimposed on Tucson, Ariz., and several other regions of the country, part of her effort to defeat incumbent Democrats who had voted for President Barack Obama’s health care legislation.
In an interview last Sunday, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois referred to the crosshairs as well as Palin’s combative rallying cry of “Don’t retreat; reload.” He said: “These sorts of things, I think, invite the kind of toxic rhetoric that can lead unstable people to believe this is an acceptable response.”
Republicans tried to shield tea party supporters from any guilt by association with an accused gunman with a troubled past.
“What we know about this individual, for example, is that he was reading Karl Marx and reading Hitler. … That’s not the profile of a typical tea party member and that’s the inference that’s being made,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
The jockeying coincided with a formal cease-fire on partisan activity in Congress, as well as with bipartisan calls for greater civility when lawmakers return to work and debate the issues that divide them.
House Republicans canceled a debate and vote that had been scheduled for this past week on a bill to repeal the health care law – an event that could have erupted into partisan fury.
“An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve,” said Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican sworn into office less than a week before the shootings.
Obama ordered flags at federal buildings lowered to half-staff and led the nation in a moment of silence. He flew to Tucson to speak at a memorial service not far from the hospital where Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and other victims were being treated.
“At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized – at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do – it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds,” he said.
More than any one politician, Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate and a possible White House contender in 2012, figured in the unfolding political debate.
Initially, an aide seemed to agree with a radio interviewer who said the crosshairs were surveyors’ markings. But the page from Palin’s website was removed without explanation.
At midweek, Palin released a videotaped statement, drawing attention to herself in the hours leading to Obama’s widely anticipated speech Wednesday.
“Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own,” she said in the seven-minute video that showed her seated in front of a stone fireplace, an American flag visible in the background. “They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle.”
She defended her own words and actions, noting that she had said while campaigning in Arizona last year, “We know violence isn’t the answer. When we take up our arms, we’re talking about our vote.”
At the same time, she said: “Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.”
Her statement led to fresh criticism, though. Jewish leaders pointed out that the phrase “blood libel” had roots in false and anti-Semitic charges that Jews once killed Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, also a likely 2012 presidential contender, distanced himself from Palin at one point, saying the map markings like the ones on her website weren’t his style.
But he also agreed on one key point with the woman who enjoys wide support among conservatives likely to vote in next year’s primaries. “There is no evidence to suggest that it (the shootings) had anything to do with this mentally unstable person’s rage and senseless act in Arizona,” he said.
Liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who’s seeking re-election next year, distributed a fundraising appeal to constituents that detailed threats against Arizona Democratic lawmakers in addition to Giffords.
It asked whether “right-wing reactionaries, through threats and acts of violence, intimidated people with different points of view from expressing their political positions” in the state.
He drew criticism from conservatives, mirroring the reaction against Palin’s more widely reported video statement.
Some of the jockeying was more subtle.
Within two days of the attacks, the liberal Media Matters Action circulated a memo titled “Arizona’s Eighth District Epitomized Over-The-Top Demonization Of Liberals,” an unflattering compilation of comments and actions by Giffords’ political rivals over the past two years.
It cited vandalism of Giffords’ congressional office hours after she voted for health care legislation and an interview in which her 2010 Republican opponent, Jesse Kelly, said liberalism was `ripping this country apart. . It’s time to engage the enemy. . It’s time for them to be afraid of us.”