Scalise still healing, but partisanship mending ends
It’s been a month since a lone gunman’s attack on Republican lawmakers practicing baseball shocked the country and drew attention to Washington’s poisonous political atmosphere, spurring promises to turn down the partisan rhetorical thermostat. Those promises have quickly faded. Instead, those on both sides of the aisle are back at it, insulting each other, questioning their motives and intelligence — and in the case of one Democrat, even suggesting that President Trump could be guilty of treason, a crime punishable by execution.
“Unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of humanity has been our very short memory when it comes to considering the great lessons of life,” said Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican. “I don’t know what the answer to that is, but yes, it seems like every day that passes, the reality of what occurred seems to dim just a little in our memories.”
Things seemed very different the morning of June 14, when gunman James Hodgkinson found the field in Alexandria, Virginia, where Republican lawmakers were practicing for the next night’s Congressional Baseball Game, and opened fire.
He stalked lawmakers and staff alike, critically wounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and four others. Only a locked fence and the presence of Capitol Police officers, who were there as part of Mr. Scalise’s security team, prevented what lawmakers said would have been a massacre of perhaps 20 members of Congress and assorted staffers.
The gunman had a long history of online vehemence against Republicans, and in the aftermath of the shooting a stunned Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent and hero to Democratic activists from his presidential run last year, acknowledged that Hodgkinson had been a campaign volunteer.
Mr. Scalise remained in the hospital Thursday in “fair” condition, after undergoing yet another surgery. Doctors said the latest round was to treat an infection resulting from his wound.
His hospitalization has already lasted longer than the hoped-for era of toneddown rhetoric, and members of Congress said that while everyone’s thoughts are still with Mr. Scalise, perhaps it was too much to expect a lasting, fundamental shift in political discourse.
Rep. Tom Reed, New York Republican and a co-chairman of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said he had hoped the scare would spark a “permanent thaw” in the overheated political rhetoric and did say that the shock could improve memberto-member relations in the long term.
“But overall, the political rhetoric is, I think, thawing back to ‘It’s us-versus-them’ tribal politics,” said Mr. Reed. “And that’s not good for the country, but it’s just [an] honest assessment of where we are.”
Both sides have fallen short of a new civility, with the partisan clash over health care only deepening divisions.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, has called the Republicans’ proposed Obamacare cuts “blood money” and predicted “people will die” as a result.
Mr. Trump shot back in a Fox News interview that Ms. Warren is a “hopeless case” and is “just somebody who has got a lot of hatred, a lot of anger.”
“I call her Pocahontas, and that’s an insult to Pocahontas,” said Mr. Trump, referring to Ms. Warren’s questionable claims of American Indian heritage.
Mr. Sanders said on MSNBC that Mr. Trump needs to “be exposed for the fraud that he is.”
Trump on Twitter
Mr. Trump has continued to use his Twitter account to go after his critics, especially unfriendly media outlets. One stark video on his Twitter feed showed him pummeling a figure whose head was replaced with the “CNN” logo.
Asked how incumbent on the president it is to set an example, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia Democrat, said Mr. Trump is beyond redemption in that regard.
“Donald Trump shows no respect for anything or anyone but himself, and it’s poisoning our” polity, he said.
Mr. Connolly said he did think there was some somber reflection among his colleagues on Capitol Hill, though.
“How lasting all that will be, I don’t know. Our politics don’t reward that,” said Mr. Connolly, whose Northern Virginia district starts mere miles from where the shooting took place.
Mr. Franks said a lot of people made some effort to reflect on the events but added that it will take a lot to overcome the tremendous polarization in the country.
“I believe the only ultimate solution is for us to go back to our roots as Americans and rally around a set of ideals, rather than just make empty chants for unity that don’t have any substance to them,” he said.
Other members said they think the initial sentiment on toning down the rhetoric is still present, though they acknowledged that they are not positive on how widespread it is.
“You know, I haven’t been monitoring overall what the rhetoric level has been,” said Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, a member of the Republican baseball team. “My sense within Congress is that it helped sort of restore the need for more civil discussion and looking for bipartisan work where we can.
“It still is in the back of a lot of lawmakers’ minds, especially as Mr. Scalise continues his recovery,” Mr. Brady said.
For many, the shooting called to mind the January 2011 attack on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who was critically wounded by a deranged gunman at a constituent event. Six others were killed in that shooting, and Ms. Giffords ultimately resigned as she struggled to recover from her wounds.
“When Gabby came to the floor and tendered her resignation, it’s one of the most powerful memories I have as a member of Congress, and the respect I had for her and for my colleagues on the other side of the aisle was solidified that day going forward,” said Mr. Reed. He said other members might have experienced something similar in the aftermath of the shooting last month.
But Mr. Connolly pointed out that even right after the Alexandria shooting, members were already retreating to their partisan corners. He said that was evident in the gun debate, where Democrats called for restrictions on the sale of firearms while some Republicans said the solution was making it easier to carry weapons in the District of Columbia.