In the wake of last November’s defeat in the midterm elections, Democratic strategist Mark Penn, appearing on “Hardball,” suggested that President Obama would need an event like the Oklahoma City bombings to “reconnect” with the American people as Bill Clinton did following the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress. Back then, Clinton cynically (and successfully) associated the anti-government rhetoric of his political opponents with the terrorist attack. This aided his strategy of portraying the newly elected majority as a bunch of extremists, allowing him to come across as reasonable by comparison, and helping to curtail their agenda. Democrats and their liberal allies in the media wasted no time on Saturday, seizing on the tragic Gabrielle Giffords shooting to condemn Sarah Palin, Fox News and tea parties — even, in some cases, before the identity of the shooter was known. It’s their hope to exploit Tucson the way Clinton effectively exploited Oklahoma City. But there are a number of key differences that make it unlikely Democrats will derive as much political benefit from this event.
To start with, taking nothing away from the importance of Saturday’s events, the sheer scale of the Oklahoma City bombing — 168 people dead, a federal building destroyed — was much larger. As a nation, we have seen assassination attempts and shooting sprees before, but the 1995 bombing was completely unprecedented. Prior to Oklahoma City, terrorist attacks were something that happened in other countries, on airplanes, or at high-profile targets (such as the World Trade Center in 1993). Beyond the mass casualties, the shock of Oklahoma City was the idea that white guys would blow up a building in America’s heartland, and thus it set off fears that this was the sort of thing that could happen anywhere. So as horrible as the Tucson shooting was, it’s unlikely to be as transformative.
Also, in the case of Oklahoma City, the fact that there was a clear political motive and that Timothy McVeigh had railed against things like high taxes and bombed a federal building, made it easier for Democrats to portray him as a member of the right wing — however unfair it was for Clinton to point fingers at talk radio. In this case, the mounting evidence shows that alleged shooter Jared Loughner was a mentally unstable individual with no clear ideology or political motives. Though they’ve been trying hard, liberals have not been able to pin him down as “right wing.”
Perhaps most importantly, this time around, Republicans, remembering Oklahoma City, are much more prepared to respond to this horrific event — with Speaker John Boehner’s handling of the aftermath even drawing praise from Nancy Pelosi, according to the Politico. Also, liberals don’t dominate the media like they did back in 1995, where there was no Fox News, conservative blogs or Twitter to push back against the “right-wing hate speech” narrative (including by pointing out things like Democrats’ own use of targeting imagery).
No doubt, there will be political ramifications to this. For some period of time — for the next few weeks or maybe months — elected officials will probably tone down their rhetoric a bit, because any normally controversial comment will be amplified in this current environment. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Obama gets a brief boost following a high-profile national speech calling on Americans of all sides to come together (whether this will be a stand alone adress or part of the State of the Union). But I don’t think it will have anywhere near the impact of the Oklahoma City bombing.