New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote, “We don’t have proof yet that this was political, but the odds are that it was.” Democrat Congressman Bill Pascrell of New Jersey denounced “an aura of hate” fed “by certain people on Fox News.” The National Democratic Jewish Council insisted that “building levels of vitriol in our discourse . . . have surely contributed to the atmosphere in which this event transpired.” The local sheriff in Arizona, a Democrat, weighed in with his own political diagnosis, insisting that the shooting rampage was how “[unbalanced people] respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government. The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.”Those playing the blame game against all facts and logic are following a well-worn precedent. Anyone who remembers the Clinton years will recall that the then-President used the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal courthouse in April of 1995 as a way to discredit conservative talk radio – the voices that had just played a central role in helping Republicans retake the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years.
In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, President Clinton condemned “loud and angry voices” in talk radio for “spreading hate and leaving the impression by their very words that violence is acceptable.” Thereafter, the Detroit Free Press published an interview with the President urging talk radio how hosts to reject all rhetoric “fostering hate and division and encouraging violence.”
The gambit succeeded in large measure for Clinton, slowing the momentum of the ’94 Republican revolution, putting conservatives on the defensive and allowing the then-President – who had been forced to assert his own relevance -- to retake the initiative. Given the political difficulties now confronting President Obama, who faces a newly-minted Republican majority in the House of Representatives after an electoral wipeout worse than 1994, it’s no wonder that some of his partisans would seek a page from the Oklahoma City playbook.
This time, however, they’re destined to fail. Here’s why:
First, now there is Fox News and the conservative blogosphere, neither of which existed in April of 1995. They enable the widespread dissemination of information rebutting efforts to equate Loughner with garden-variety conservatives or Tea Partiers – or blame his acts on the statements of public figures. For example, when left-wing bloggers invoked a bulls-eye graphic that had appeared on a year-old campaign map from Sarah Palin as a reason for the violence, right-learning bloggers like VerumSerum were quick to point out that similar graphics have been used by the Democratic Leadership Council. Liberals no longer have the media playing field all to themselves.
Second, at least some respected media figures have wearied of the ongoing efforts to use national tragedies for partisan political gain. Howard Fineman and Howard Kurtz – neither of them conservatives – have called a halt to “opening rhetorical fire,” as Kurtz put it, in the wake of such attacks.
Third, almost 16 years after Oklahoma City – and after seeing similar gamesmanship in the wake of crimes like the Holocaust Museum shooting -- Americans have become skeptical of cynical efforts to stigmatize entire ideologies based only on the actions of lone, clearly deranged criminals. That’s especially true where, as here, there’s no real evidence that the suspect actually subscribed to any coherent political creed.
Finally, the political climate has changed, drastically, since 1995. Many (if not most) Americans have just endured two years in which a liberal majority has governed against their own expressed wishes. By doing so, liberal politicians – from the President on down -- have aroused widespread, deep-seated opposition among the electorate to an unprecedented degree. In such a climate, people will find it easier to distinguish between insane criminals and law-abiding dissenters from government policy, because they are likelier than ever to be dissenters themselves.
Given all of this, those on the left would be best advised to avoid cheap blame-seeking for political gain. If they persist in the dishonorable effort to discredit the beliefs of millions of Americans based on the criminal actions of just one, ironically, they may hurt their own cause most, further convincing Americans of what so many already know: That the left is simply out of touch.