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Any pause in harsh political rhetoric may be short-lived

Associated Press | 1/18/2011, 6:56 p.m.

If anything, partisanship has worsened since then. Last year’s health care law was passed despite unanimous Republican opposition. Giffords, who voted for the bill, received threats, saw her district office vandalized and said she worried about the consequences of menacing debate.

The House appears more sharply divided now. The Republicans’ 63-seat gain in last fall’s elections came mainly at the expense of moderate Democrats, making the Democratic caucus smaller but more liberal.

“The parties, especially in the House, are much more divided now,” said Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz. And with a few congressional Republicans defeated in last year’s primaries by tea party candidates, Abramowitz said, some GOP lawmakers will not want to risk being seen as willing to work with Democrats.

Last week, the Washington-based “Civility Project” disbanded after only three of Congress’ 535 members signed a pledge to treat their adversaries with respect.

Lanny J. Davis, a Democratic lawyer and co-founder of the bipartisan project, said last Thursday that lawmakers in both parties “want to reserve the right to be angry and uncivil.”

Davis, who counseled the Clinton White House, said irresponsible partisan sniping won’t stop until leaders of both parties reprimand abusers from their own side, not their opponents’. He said Obama should publicly ask liberal commentators such as MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann to stop attacking conservatives such as Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. “If there is going to be a change, there has to be more Sister Souljah moments,” Davis said. He was referring to a 1992 campaign speech in which Clinton angered some blacks, an important Democratic base, by criticizing violent and racially tinged hip hop songs and their singers.

Obama won widespread praise for last Wednesday’s speech in Tucson. But he has been known to indulge in partisan digs himself. He regaled audiences last year with a parable about unhelpful Republicans, standing on the sidelines and “sipping on a Slurpee,” while Democrats tried to pull the economy from the ditch where the GOP drove it.

And last February, Obama hosted a bipartisan health care summit that had virtually no bipartisan warmth.

When Sen. John McCain, whom Obama had defeated to win the presidency, condemned the overall health care debate, Obama sharply reminded him, “We’re not campaigning anymore. The election’s over.”

And now the 2010 election is over, with Obama’s party suffering huge losses. Republicans feel emboldened, Democrats are surly, and a horrific shooting in Arizona may do little to change the dynamics.

Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.