WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Protesters parade an altered photo of President Barack Obama sporting an Adolf Hitler-like mustache. A candidate for the Senate muses about gun “remedies” if election results don’t go the right way. Members of Congress are spat on and taunted with racial epithets before casting votes for a healthcare reform bill.
Welcome to politics American-style.
For the past few years, some public officeholders and pundits have warned that the political rhetoric has gotten a little too overheated in a country known for its loose gun laws and history of presidential assassinations.
Now, in the aftermath of Saturday’s Arizona shooting rampage that left a congresswoman in critical condition from a gunshot to the head, six people dead and 13 others wounded, some are saying it’s time to reset the tone of America’s political discourse.
A suspect in the shooting, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, of Tucson, is in custody but his motives are unclear. The FBI is investigating whether the man is the same person who posted a rambling Internet manifesto accusing the government of mind control and demanding a new currency.
Pending clarity on the reasons for the shooting, senior politicians have called for calm.
“We ought to cool it, tone it down,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, a member of the Senate’s Republican leadership, speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
An angry America is no doubt the result of economic woes underscored by an unemployment rate that has been stuck at nearly 10 percent for a prolonged period.
The Tea Party movement — a loose union of conservatives who have mostly supported Republican candidates or have run as Republicans — has capitalized on the uncertain times, winning dozens of seats in the House of Representatives and Senate.
Some Tea Party “town hall meetings” have included angry confrontations with incumbent members of Congress.
Republicans, however, point out that the suspected shooter might not have been acting out of political motivations.
“We just have to acknowledge that there are some mentally unstable people in this country; who knows what motivates them to do what they do,” said Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, interviewed on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
But 10 months ago, in the midst of a tough re-election campaign, Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona Democrat who was gunned down on Saturday, warned that she had been receiving violent threats. Shortly after she voted for Obama’s healthcare reform bill, a window in one of her Arizona offices was smashed.
“Our office corner has really become an area where the Tea party movement congregates and the rhetoric is really heated. Not just the calls but the e-mails, the slurs,” Giffords said at the time.
A local sheriff in southern Arizona does not believe the shooting occurred in a vacuum.
“When the rhetoric about hatred, about mistrust of government, about paranoia of how government operates, and to try to inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, has impact on people especially who are unbalanced personalities,” said Pima County sheriff Clarence Dupnik.
A TIME-OUT FOR ANGER?
In the aftermath of the Arizona shooting, there could be a pause in Washington’s harsh talk and infighting, according to some analysts.
“Temporarily, politicians are really going to be careful about what they say,” predicted Paul Sracic, chairman of the political science department at Youngstown State University in Ohio.
But, he added, “American politics has a very short memory” and issues that deeply divide the country — from immigration policy to healthcare — are likely to stoke political anger again.
Furthermore, the carnage in Arizona likely will have an impact far beyond Giffords and the other shooting victims, according to Sracic.
“I certainly think in the short-term it damages (Sarah) Palin’s political cachet,” Sracic said.
Palin, the failed 2008 Republican candidate for vice president who has hinted at a possible run for president in 2012, has used some highly charged language in fund-raising efforts and other forums and has sometimes been depicted toting a rifle.
“Commonsense conservatives & lovers of America: “Don’t Retreat, Instead - RELOAD!” she tweeted amid the healthcare debate last year.
On a Facebook site in early 2010, Palin posted a map of the United States with cross hairs over 20 congressional districts held by Democrats she hoped would be thrown out of office. It included the seat held by Giffords. “It’s time to take a stand,” the posting said.
“That’s going to be hard for her to overcome,” Sracic said, adding, “With this, she comes across as irresponsible. It has damaged her chances as a nominee” for president.
Palin aide Rebecca Mansour, speaking on conservative radio host Tammy Bruce’s show on Saturday, tried to play down the cross hairs image.
“The graphic is ... we never ever ever intended it to be gun sights. It was simply cross hairs like you’d see on maps ... a surveyor’s symbol,” she said.
There also can be political winners after such tragedies, Sracic noted. “We should expect President Obama’s popularity to rise after this,” he said, adding that “Americans look to the president” after any tragedy that is viewed as “an attack on the country as a whole.”
House Speaker John Boehner — only five days into his new job after Republicans gained control of the House in the November elections — also could see a boost, Sracic said.
“He may be the right person at the right time for this,” saying that Boehner is not the polarizing figure that former speakers Newt Gingrich or Nancy Pelosi have been. “He doesn’t have that kind of edge. He may become somewhat of a unifying figure in Congress.”.
Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan, Tabassum Zakaria and John O'Callaghan; Editing by Jackie Frank