Con­ser­va­tives and Obama’s speech

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

The Tuc­son speech may go down as one of the most im­por­tant of Barack Obama’s pres­i­dency, so it’s worth nail­ing down its most im­por­tant ac­com­plish­ment: He fi­nally got con­ser­va­tives to lis­ten to what he had to say— about them.

Con­ser­va­tives have widely hailed Obama’s speech, pri­mar­ily be­cause they think he ”re­buked” the left when he said that our over­heated dis­course didn’t cause the Ari­zona shoot­ings. This line was im­por­tant but not for the rea­sons con­ser­va­tives think it was. By ab­solv­ing the right from blame, he made it im­pos­si­ble for them to shut out his larger mes­sage.

Obama’s state­ment that rhetoric didn’t cause the mas­sacre is best un­der­stood as a set-up to the larger point that fol­lowed: that the blood­shed con­fers a moral obli­ga­tion upon all of us to im­prove the tone and in­tegrity of our dis­course. If Obama had de­liv­ered this lat­ter mes­sage with­out the set-up, con­ser­va­tives would have had an open­ing to re­ject it as po­lit­i­cal.

Be­fore the speech, it was widely as­sumed that Obama would not en­gage the topic of ci­vil­ity in our po­lit­i­cal dis­course. Many on the right had been in a de­fen­sive crouch— in some ways un­der­stand­ably so — leav­ing them in­clined to in­ter­pret even gen­eral calls for ton­ing down rhetoric as thinly dis­guised blame for the mur­ders. Obama, the think­ing went, would not risk broach­ing the sub­ject.

But Obama took on the topic in a big way. By lead­ing with an ex­plicit state­ment that the tone of our dis­course was not to blame for the killings, he made it im­pos­si­ble for con­ser­va­tives to main­tain their de­fen­sive pos­ture, com­pelling them to re­spond pos­i­tively to his larger mes­sage.

And that mes­sage — that we all tone it down— was mainly, though not ex­clu­sively, di­rected at the right. In a con­text where prom­i­nent con­ser­va­tives have ac­cused Obama of not lov­ing Amer­ica, of be­ing a so­cial­ist and a Mus­lim sym­pa­thizer, it’s clear whom Obama was ad­dress­ing when he in­sisted that we im­prove the dis­course for the sake of our coun­try.

Whether the more stri­dent voices on the right act on this mes­sage is an­other mat­ter, but at least Obama got con­ser­va­tives to lis­ten to it and to im­plic­itly en­dorse it as some­thing to as­pire to as we move for­ward.

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