The surprise return on Monday of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., to the House floor stirred displays of everything Americans say they want in Congress: bipartisanship and comity, everyone pulling the same way, legitimate philosophical differences subdued by shared principles and values.
There were bipartisan cheers and tears, as well as a kiss from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, whose party has targeted Giffords for defeat.
(PICTURES: Giffords Returns to Washington)
After all, everybody can get together on the idea of a woman triumphing over an assassination attempt and returning to work just seven months after taking a bullet through the head, right?
Barely. Giffords’s scene-stealing appearance might be symbolic of everything voters desire, or say they do, but it’s the antithesis of how they voted last November. And, based on current polling, are threatening to vote again next year.
(MORE: Giffords Undecided on 2012 Run)
The “new tone” in politics after Giffords’s shooting on January 8 in Tucson was brief--as were the good feelings inspired by her comeback this week. By 10 the next morning, Democrats and Republicans on the Senate floor were unearthing whatever recriminations might not have been mined during the past few weeks.
The hard-fought bipartisan deal that preempted a national credit default wasn’t prompting any celebration. “We will default in a more insidious way,” gloomed the Senate’s tea party poster boy, Rand Paul, R-Ky. “A malaise hangs in the air. America is a ship without a captain,” he said. Pretty uplifting stuff.
(READ MORE: Giffords Brings Applause to House Floor)
Paul, though, is just what the electorate ordered in 2010, the third-consecutive congressional wave election, and one that could be joined in 2012.
This week’s United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll found that only 10 percent of respondents believed that most members of Congress were performing well enough to deserve reelection.
(TIMELINE: The Recovery of Giffords)
A Washington Post/Pew Research Center poll said that none of the parties involved--the president, the speaker, congressional Democrats, or Republicans, tea party members--improved their standing. In fact, at least twice as many poll respondents, and in some cases more than three times as many, held the players in less favor rather than more.
Giffords, or what she has come to represent, is what the country wants to see in its elected representatives. The question after the last few weeks: Will they reward the kind of bipartisanship she symbolizes? Or for a Congress that is even more polarized?
(PICTURES: 2011's Most Inspiring Stories)
This article appears in the August 2, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.