Pundits and politicians alike praised President Obama's speech at the Tucson memorial service last Wednesday. "A wonderful speech," wrote the New York Times' David Brooks. "A magnificent performance," wrote National Review's Rich Lowry. "A terrific speech," wrote Sen. John McCain.
And those were just the voices on the right.
Obama's tribute to the victims of the shooting and the heroism of bystanders was appreciated by everyone. But many conservatives particularly admired the speech because the president took care to say, in clear terms, that political rhetoric did not cause the violence in Tucson. "It did not," Obama said flatly. After days during which prominent voices on the Left -- by and large Obama supporters -- blamed the Right for inciting the violence, the president's words were a welcome change.
But how could he have said otherwise? By the time Obama spoke, there was irrefutable evidence that shooting suspect Jared Loughner was deeply mentally ill and acted out of no recognizable political agenda. Obama simply could not have made the case that Loughner's acts were in any way the product of political rhetoric from right or left.
He didn't need to. The point Obama wanted to make was not that political rhetoric caused the violence but that such rhetoric -- like, for example, criticism directed at Barack Obama -- should be toned down. So even as he conceded that rhetoric did not cause the violence, Obama argued that it should be muted anyway. And he cloaked his appeal in so much emotionalism, in so many tear-jerking references to the recently departed, that some in his audience might not have noticed he was making the political point he wanted to make all along.
Imagine a calculating Democratic political strategist. What would he have wanted Obama to accomplish in the Tucson speech? He would have wanted the president to send the message that the political debate has gotten too rough and should be moderated. Democrats believe that message favors them; they have had much success characterizing, and mis-characterizing, statements by figures like Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, Rush Limbaugh and others as potential incitements to violence. Democrats want a debate about rhetoric because they think they can win it.
But since it was impossible to tie the violence in Tucson to Republican rhetoric, the president couldn't very well use the shootings as the premise for a national conversation about the tone of political debate, could he? Yes, he could. It might seem like a stretch -- even to a calculating Democratic strategist -- for Obama to portray Jared Loughner's insanity as the proper starting point for a national debate about civility in politics. Yet that is what he did.
And employing a tactic that in a less sentimental atmosphere would have been seen as breathtakingly cynical, Obama enlisted Christina Taylor Green, the nine year-old girl killed in the shootings, to support his cause. "She saw [politics] through the eyes of a child, undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often take just for granted," Obama said. "I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it. All of us -- we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations."
How can America live up to Christina's expectations? According to Obama, by making sure that her death "helps usher in more civility in our public discourse…because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make [the victims] proud." In other words: Christina would have wanted us to tone down the rhetoric. The calculating Democratic strategist would have been very, very happy.
By the time he spoke in Tucson, Obama had let four days pass while some of the angriest voices in the media -- his supporters -- either blamed Republicans directly for the killings or blamed the GOP for creating the atmosphere in which the violence took place. During those four days, the president could have cooled the conversation by urging everyone to avoid jumping to conclusions, as he did the day after the November 2009 massacre at Ft. Hood, Texas. But he didn't. Only after Loughner's insanity had been indisputably established did Obama concede that politics was not to blame for the shooting.
By then, however, the president's supporters had tied the killings to the issue of political rhetoric. In Tucson, Obama played good cop to their bad cop by assuring everyone that rhetoric had not motivated the violence. But he still brought up the topic because, he said, it had "been discussed in recent days." Of course, it would not have been discussed in recent days had his supporters not made so many unfair accusations.
Some Democratic strategists hope Obama can capitalize on Tucson the way Bill Clinton capitalized on Oklahoma City. Perhaps he'll be able to, and perhaps he won't. But he's already trying.