16 Jan 2011

Obama’s Adroit Rhetoric

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Byron York observes that Barack Obama has managed, in his Tucson speech, to succeed in having it both ways.

Pundits and politicians alike praised President Obama’s speech at the Tucson memorial service last Wednesday. “A wonderful speech,” wrote the New York Times’ David Brooks. “A magnificent performance,” wrote National Review’s Rich Lowry. “A terrific speech,” wrote Sen. John McCain.

And those were just the voices on the right.

Obama’s tribute to the victims of the shooting and the heroism of bystanders was appreciated by everyone. But many conservatives particularly admired the speech because the president took care to say, in clear terms, that political rhetoric did not cause the violence in Tucson. “It did not,” Obama said flatly. After days during which prominent voices on the Left — by and large Obama supporters — blamed the Right for inciting the violence, the president’s words were a welcome change.

But how could he have said otherwise? By the time Obama spoke, there was irrefutable evidence that shooting suspect Jared Loughner was deeply mentally ill and acted out of no recognizable political agenda. Obama simply could not have made the case that Loughner’s acts were in any way the product of political rhetoric from right or left.

He didn’t need to. The point Obama wanted to make was not that political rhetoric caused the violence but that such rhetoric — like, for example, criticism directed at Barack Obama — should be toned down. So even as he conceded that rhetoric did not cause the violence, Obama argued that it should be muted anyway. And he cloaked his appeal in so much emotionalism, in so many tear-jerking references to the recently departed, that some in his audience might not have noticed he was making the political point he wanted to make all along. …

Some Democratic strategists hope Obama can capitalize on Tucson the way Bill Clinton capitalized on Oklahoma City. Perhaps he’ll be able to, and perhaps he won’t. But he’s already trying.

Substantively, the left has lost the “civility” debate, but the low-quality mainstream media goes right ahead talking about “a change in political rhetoric in response to the Tucson tragedy” as if they’d won.


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