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.
A key difference, we should point out, however, is in the reaction to extremism and over-the-line rhetoric. While the Left ignores its own shortcomings in this regard, it is vastly more inclined to exploit extremism – or invent it – for political gain. Usually, this amounts to ad hominem attacks that have little to do with actual political affiliation. This, we have also seen countless times, often in the form of indiscriminate accusations of racism (or “homophobia,” “xenophobia,” and the like); itself, an expression of vitriol. Yet it is only now, and with an almost exclusive emphasis on heated politics from the right-wing, that a moment of reflection is in order. Why? Are leftists so clueless about their own propensity for invective that they’ve forgotten the political climate of just a few short years ago? Perhaps the more telling question is, are we to believe that the Left has forgotten its own “climate of hate” and its ongoing debasement of the political dialogue?
To claim that elite politicos are merely overlooking left-wing extremism is a charitable reading of the situation, indeed. This is even more questionable when one considers the political gains to be had from exploiting the Giffords shooting. Popularizing the narrative that the right-wing is fueled by hatred, racism, and violence has been integral to the Left’s answer to the opponents of its agenda, of which the health care overhaul bill was a crowning achievement. Asserting that Saturday’s horrific event was an outgrowth of that milieu of hate, just when the tables have turned and the debate begins anew, is not just a blind character assassination – it’s good politics.
Politically speaking, there is every reason for those on the Left to twist the Giffords shooting in this way. It doesn’t matter that, as we learn more about the perpetrator, 22-year-old Jared Loughner appears to have been in the midst of a textbook psychotic break and to have had no intelligible political views. Just the association between the atrocity and the Right’s political agenda is enough. It is enough to ensconce the upcoming vote on health care in an aura of controversy that, given the great symbolic nature of the bill, would not be present for most other bills brought to the floor. That the debate will transpire in the only branch of government that was secured by the very conservative upswell the Left is now trying to impugn, is also difficult to ignore. No matter the outcome of the vote next week, nor the projected piecemeal repeal of Obamacare to come, this political ploy will loom over the debate, and probably only intensify. Sadly, the quest to cast Giffords as an Obamacare martyr cheapens popular victory over the legislation, as much as it cheapens the dignity of those slain.
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