In 1995, a politically desperate President Clinton brazenly capitalized on the bombing in Oklahoma City, blaming his political opponents and their extreme right-wing rhetoric for the horrific incident. This was six months after Clinton suffered a stunning rebuke in the midterm elections, with the Democratic loss of both the House and the Senate to Republicans. In 2011, in the wake of the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, President Obama has been unburdened of the task of blaming his critics for the national tragedy himself. Most of the dirty work is being carried out by the mainstream media, which immediately used the event as a cudgel against Obama’s political adversaries. This will be felt most strongly next week when the House votes to repeal the president’s controversial healthcare reform bill. The vote is expected to succeed, but any conservative victory over “Obamacare” is likely doomed to ambiguity — neither triumphant nor undeserved, but tainted by a fictive legacy of “extremist politics.”
To be clear, the allegation that Obamacare opponents are “extremists” or part of a “climate of hate,” as economist Paul Krugman described in The New York Times Monday, is baseless slander of the first order. Must we rebut the Krugman presumption? I suppose we must: There is no evidence that extremism is a prominent aspect of popular conservatism in any significant sense. Anecdotal evidence of such is thoroughly matched by “extremist” behavior on the other side, and is therefore not particular to right-wing activism. Even preceding Obamacare’s passage in March of 2010, left-wing rage was abundantly manifest. We could point out Kenneth Gladney, who, while selling miniature Gadsden flags, was beaten senseless by an unhinged member of the SEIU, a Marxist union closely allied with President Obama. Or we could recall the Tea Party protester whose finger was bitten off by a MoveOn.org sympathizer in 2009. Or former Congressman Alan Grayson, who accused Republicans of wanting Americans to “die quickly.” The examples proceed ad infinitum. The point is that, rather than being inveterate to the Republican or Democratic party, extremism is a cold fact of reality for both the Left and Right. What matters is that it is infrequent and openly condemned when it occurs.
Within hours of the news that Rep. Giffords had been shot and numerous others had been killed or wounded, The New York Times blamed “vitriol” in politics for the massacre and pointed to the conservative movement (the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, etc.) in particular. Numerous other contributions from the Times and other left-wing figures and publications have since echoed the same. What is unclear is why “vitriol” in politics is suddenly so foreign to the Left. It suggests a degree of sensitivity in discourse which, of all political precincts, it certainly does not possess. The Bush years constituted an incredibly heated period in American politics, especially when led by anti-war hysterics. Some will remember when Bill Maher publicly opined, in all seriousness, that the world would be a safer place if Dick Cheney were dead. This statement was met with applause from his Real Time audience. Again, the examples go on and on. But particular examples are not the point. No faction enjoys a kind of holy disassociation from political degenerates, and these incidents quickly accumulate.