Tucson Tragedy Will Test the President

Former presidential adviser turned Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel once infamously said that a politician should never let a crisis go to waste, because crises allow you to do what you cannot do in ordinary times.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later paraphrased Emanuel, and agreed with it in the context of the economic crisis.  Here is video of both remarks.

Saturday's tragic events in Tucson, in which Rep. Gabby Giffords was grievously wounded in a shooting that left six dead, among them a nine-year-old girl born on Sept 11, 2001, and a federal judge, make the above comments highly relevant. Tuscon was a tragedy and it can spark a national crisis.

Reacting to the Democrats' massive defeat back in November, veteran Democratic operative Mark Penn took the "crisis" language a step further than Emanuel and Clinton, in saying that President Obama needed a crisis that he could use to reconnect with the American people.

President Clinton reconnected with Oklahoma. And the President right now he seems removed. And it wasn’t until that speech that he really clicked with the American people. Obama needs a similar kind of, yeah.

Now, put all of that thinking together.  Rahm Emanuel, Hillary Clinton, and Mark Penn are not fringe Democratic figures by any stretch.  One is the recently departed White House chief of staff who worked for the current president, one has been around Democratic politics for decades, and one is the secretary of State and runner-up in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, along with being a former senator and former first lady.

President Obama's public approval rating is not strong.  His party recently lost the U.S. House, state legislatures and governorships all over the country, and nearly lost the Senate.  He knows he needs a game changer.

The coming days and weeks will test President Obama as he has never been tested in his life.  He can easily see from the 1995 experience that President Clinton, the last Democratic president to get re-elected in a very long time, used the Oklahoma City bombing to put his critics on the right on the defensive, and to connect with the American people at the same time.  Clinton did not let the crisis of Oklahoma City go to waste.  He was re-elected the following year, but his comeback began with a speech to the nation in a time of tragedy.  The lure of repeating that experience and bringing his presidency back to life is probably mighty in Obama's mind.

But 2011 is not 1995.  In the America of 1995, demagoguery of the sort in which President Clinton engaged in the wake of Oklahoma City was far easier to get away with.  Clinton explicitly blamed conservative talk radio for McVeigh's heinous actions, though we would later learn that McVeigh was no conservative, not by a long shot.  Religiously, he was at most an agnostic.  He was far from a mainstream anything, left or right.  But the Internet was not ubiquitous in those days, for sleuthing and fact-checking.  Tim McVeigh did not leave a YouTube channel spelling out in detail the thoughts that begat his atrocity.  YouTube didn't even exist in 1995, and neither did social media or the blogosphere.  Mark Penn's hopes are not only repugnant and disgusting; the fact is, they're dated.  He's living in the past.

The alleged gunman of Arizona, Jared Loughner, evidently did leave an extensive cache of videos at YouTube.  They portray a young man who is not easily classified as either a liberal or a conservative.  He seems to hate the Constitution, religion, and the U.S. flag, all of which put some serious distance between him and the tea parties or anyone on the right.  He also left a list of his favorite books:

I had favorite books: Animal Farm, Brave New World, The Wizard Of OZ, Aesop Fables, The Odyssey, Alice Adventures Into Wonderland, Fahrenheit 451, Peter Pan, To Kill A Mockingbird, We The Living, Phantom Toll Booth, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Pulp,Through The Looking Glass, The Communist Manifesto, Siddhartha, The Old Man And The Sea, Gulliver's Travels, Mein Kampf, The Republic, and Meno.

Ayn Rand's We The Living might be regarded as a libertarian classic.  The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf, not so much.  That list of books strikes me as an attempt to fake an intellectual's pose.  They don't show a coherent political worldview, or even an appreciation for quality writing (I had to read Mein Kampf in college, and it's brutal reading).

Many on the left, and a few even on the right, want to paint Loughner as a tea party type.  Politico quotes one "veteran Democratic operative" advising President Obama to do exactly that, to destroy the tea party's credibility and help himself:

One veteran Democratic operative, who blames overheated rhetoric for the shooting, said President Barack Obama should carefully but forcefully do what his predecessor did.

“They need to deftly pin this on the tea partiers,” said the Democrat. “Just like the Clinton White House deftly pinned the Oklahoma City bombing on the militia and anti-government people.”

Reading that quote and then watching the video above again, it's impossible not to conclude that Mark Penn is that quote's author, and it's also impossible not to conclude that that sort of thinking has already made its way to the Oval Office.  Gary Hart, once a Democratic presidential contender until personal peccadilloes did him in, put his name explicitly to the task of politicizing Tuscon:

“Today we have seen the results” of “irresponsible and dangerous rhetoric,” former Democratic senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart wrote on Huffington Post. “Those with a megaphone, whether provided by public office or a media outlet, have responsibilities. They cannot avoid the consequences of their blatant efforts to inflame, anger, and outrage.”

Not for the first time, it's clear that Gary Hart is unfit for the presidency.

In the world of 2011, President Obama will not be able to get away with politicizing tragedy, as President Clinton did.  It will not work.  Following the advice to politicize Tuscon would be a terrible mistake.

No one, anywhere, on either side of the political aisle, should politically capitalize on Tuscon.  This moment in American history demands real statesmanship and real leadership, not more divisive winner-takes-all politics.

What President Obama does in this moment will tell us much about his character.  Does he put his own political fortunes above the health of the country?  Is he willing to advance a lie, and build on that lie, to save himself and his party?  Will he keep and listen to advisers who think that he should do this?

If President Obama succumbs to the temptation that others on his side have already succumbed to, to blame Tuscon on Sarah Palin's map or Glenn Beck's TV show or the tea parties, it will work to his everlasting shame.  It will wreck President Obama's personal credibility.  It may destroy his already faltering presidency beyond repair.  But more than that, it will further divide the country.  It will poison our politics, and they're already poisonous enough.  It may damage the presidency itself.

Is President Obama willing to risk all that, just to "reconnect" and give himself a better chance at re-election?  We will soon find out.