Hoping for a Silver Lining after the Virginia Shooting

Experience suggests that the unity following the tragedy will be short-lived, but with luck our hyper-partisan politics will take on a more civil tone.

FBI agents work in the parking lot of the YMCA next to the baseball field at Eugene Simpson Stadium Park in Alexandria, Va., on Thursday, the day after House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was shot during during a congressional baseball practice.
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
June 15, 2017, 8 p.m.

After the sense­less shoot­ing Wed­nes­day morn­ing at the Re­pub­lic­an base­ball prac­tice, writ­ing about elect­or­al polit­ics seems in­ap­pro­pri­ate. That column can wait.

I hope I speak for all read­ers when I say that we pray for the full and speedy re­cov­ery of House Ma­jor­ity Whip Steve Scal­ise; Matt Mi­ka, a Tyson Foods lob­by­ist who was coach­ing the GOP team and is crit­ic­ally wounded; and for the oth­er three people wounded in the in­cid­ent: Zach Barth, a le­gis­lat­ive cor­res­pond­ent for Rep. Ro­ger Wil­li­ams, and the brave Cap­it­ol Po­lice of­ficers Dav­id Bailey and Crys­tal Griner.

Bailey and Griner, who served on Scal­ise’s se­cur­ity de­tail, risked their lives to save so many oth­ers. If there was any doubt why mem­bers of con­gres­sion­al lead­er­ship have se­cur­ity de­tails, this is why. Thank God they were there. There is no prac­tic­al way to provide se­cur­ity to all mem­bers of Con­gress, and even if there were, it would in­hib­it their abil­ity to in­ter­act with their con­stitu­ents. But it would be prudent to have law en­force­ment per­son­nel present whenev­er large groups of law­makers gath­er.

It seems so iron­ic that something tied to one of the few events in­volving law­makers from both parties that has tran­scen­ded par­tis­an­ship, es­pe­cially the venom­ous vari­ety that has been rampant over the last two dec­ades, was the tar­get of an ideo­lo­gic­al zealot.

Ugly rhet­or­ic and be­ha­vi­or rose sharply dur­ing the first two years of Barack Obama’s pres­id­ency. Tea-party ral­lies be­came in­creas­ingly bois­ter­ous and mean-spir­ited, far ex­ceed­ing the par­tis­an ran­cor dur­ing the 16 years of the pres­id­en­cies of Bill Clin­ton and George W. Bush. Over the last two years, we saw even more egre­gious be­ha­vi­or at many Don­ald Trump ral­lies and anti-Hil­lary Clin­ton chants of “Lock Her Up” at last sum­mer’s GOP Con­ven­tion, led by Mi­chael Flynn (who may well end up locked up him­self).

The cu­mu­lat­ive ef­fect of the last eight-and-a-half years was to give Demo­crats and lib­er­als a plat­form to blame Re­pub­lic­ans and con­ser­vat­ives for coarsen­ing our na­tion­al dia­logue. That makes it par­tic­u­larly iron­ic now that a Demo­crat—a Bernie Sanders cam­paign Iowa vo­lun­teer—at­temp­ted to kill Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers of Con­gress for be­ing Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers of Con­gress.

It is doubly iron­ic that they were en­gaged in our na­tion­al pas­time, pre­par­ing for a char­ity event. I have no doubt that Sen. Sanders and his sup­port­ers are mor­ti­fied at what happened; agree or dis­agree with views of Sanders, he cer­tainly is a de­cent man. The polit­ic­al ac­ri­mony had reached such a fevered pitch that the in­cid­ent seemed in­ev­it­able. The only ques­tion was which side’s lun­at­ic would take the hor­rif­ic step.

About four hours after the shoot­ing, like thou­sands of oth­ers, I was watch­ing Twit­ter for any new de­vel­op­ments in the case when I saw a tweet from someone sug­gest­ing Sanders might be to blame for the shoot­ing. Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Glen Bol­ger in­stantly re­spon­ded, “Be­fore any­one is temp­ted, this is NOT @SenSanders fault. There are crazy vi­ol­ent people on both ends of the spec­trum.” Bol­ger fol­lowed this up by writ­ing, “Sen­at­or Sanders has not, to my know­ledge, ad­voc­ated vi­ol­ence. This is NOT him.” I have known Glen for at least 25 years. Glen has helped to elect scores of GOP can­did­ates; there are few more loy­al Re­pub­lic­ans. But I thought his ef­fort to de­fend Sanders, a former pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate from the oth­er party, cap­tured the pre­val­ent feel­ing of the day—that there is no room in Amer­ic­an polit­ics for the ac­tions of James Hodgkin­son, the shoot­er, or for the ir­re­spons­ible and ill-con­sidered rhet­or­ic of zealots.

Ex­per­i­ence sug­gests that it is naïve to as­sume this tra­gic event will cause fan­at­ics at both ends of the ideo­lo­gic­al spec­trum to dial back their words and, more im­port­antly, their be­ha­vi­or. The best we can hope for is that those with mor­al com­passes will call people out when they hear in­flam­mat­ory talk to tamp it down be­fore it leads to vi­ol­ence.

The risk is that any good com­ing from this sense­less act will be short-lived, sim­il­ar to the tran­si­ent ef­fect of mem­bers from both the House and Sen­ate, Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans alike, singing “God Bless Amer­ica” on the Cap­it­ol steps hours after the ter­ror at­tacks of 9/11. But I will keep hop­ing that the hor­rible shoot­ing in Vir­gin­ia will ease the hy­per-par­tis­an­ship that has poisoned our polit­ics.

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