To his credit, President Obama refrained in his Tucson speech last night from anything that could be construed as blatantly political or a declaration of war on conservative politicians, the “Tea Party,” talk radio, or spirited discussion of issues.
“If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate,” he told the audience at the University of Arizona McKale Memorial Center, “as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost. Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.”
Coupled with his extemporanious recollection of visiting wounded Rep. Giffords earlier in the day and how her husband Mark Kelley told him he could mention this, the President did a good job as “comforter in chief.”
But did, as many of my colleagues in the White House Press Corps were wondering right up until the address, Obama have a “Clinton moment” tonight–that is, recreating the address the last Democratic President made following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 that rallied his fellow Democrats and won back independents following the routing the party in the White House had taken a few months earlier?
The answer is almost certainly no. While paying tribute to the victims in Oklahoma City, Clinton also used some “red meat” rhetoric that drew a line in the sand between him and the Republicans who had taken Congress and their allies on the air.
“Let us let our own children know that we will stand against the forces of fear,” Clinton said in Oklahoma City, “When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. In the face of death, let us honor life. As St. Paul admonished us, let us not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”
Strong medicine, all right—and inarguably an example of illustrating “us versus them.”
Obama’s eighteen-minute speech had none of that. He obviously distanced himself from from other voices of the left, ranging from Vermont’s self-styled Socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders to South Carolina’s Democratic Rep. James Clyburn (who somehow linked the tragedy to remarks made by Nevada GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle last year).
In a fund-raising letter from Sanders written earlier in the week, the Vermont senator wondered: What should be understood is that the violence, and threats of violence against Democrats in Arizona, was not limited to Gabrielle Giffords. And Judge John Roll, who was shot to death at the Giffords event, had received numerous threatening calls and death threats in 2009. In light of all of this violence – both actual and threatened – is Arizona a state in which people who are not Republicans are able to participate freely and fully in the democratic process? Have right-wing reactionaries, through threats and acts of violence, intimidated people with different points of view from expressing their political positions?
In contrast to this “over-the-top” partisanship, Obama invited Arizona’s Republican Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain to join him on the journey to Tucson, and mentioned in his remarks that slain Federal Judge John Roll had been recommended for the bench by McCain and appointed by President George H.W. Bush.
(If there was one criticism of Obama’s Tucson address, it was the venue. In contrast to a church or synagogue or a more somber venue, the McKale Center seemed to invite the loud cheering that frequently punctuated the President’s remarks and at times suggested a political rally rather than a memorial. The same criticism was famously heard about the convention-like memorial service to the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone in 2002).
So did Barack Obama have a “Clinton moment” in Tucson? No, and it is unlikely to translate into a Democratic resurgence or any major victories in Congress. But his speech in Tucson was appropriate for the sad occasion and it that sense, it was good.