An inter-party feud erupted Wednesday evening over whether the head of the Democratic Party blamed the Tea Party movement for the shooting one year ago in Tucson, Ariz., that killed six and injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.).
The left claimed that Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) was referring to the rancor of public discourse — a hot topic in the days after the shooting.
Republicans called it a pathetic attempt to score political points, and demanded an apology.
At issue was an answer the chairwoman gave to a question about restoring faith in the civility of Congress during a breakfast forum in Bedford, N.H., on Wednesday, the morning after New Hampshire held its first-in-the-nation primary.
“We need to make sure that we tone things down, particularly in light of the Tucson tragedy from a year ago,” Wasserman Schultz said. After pausing to tell the audience that Giffords, a close personal friend, had been making progress, the chairwoman said that discourse in Congress and in the nation had changed. “I hesitate to place blame, but I have noticed it take a very precipitous turn towards edginess and a lack of civility with the growth of the Tea Party movement.”
The party head and Florida congresswoman said the change occurred when the Tea Party sent dozens of freshmen to the House after the 2010 elections, bringing with them a set of conduct she said was more divisive and less civil than anything she had seen.
“They have taken it to a different level, and so when they come and disagree with you, you're not just wrong. You are the enemy," she said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus took to Twitter to demand his Democratic counterpart immediately apologize, then went on CNN to say that Wasserman Schultz talks too much and went too far.
“I think she ought to apologize and admit the stupidity of that comment," Priebus said, "and to take such a tragedy and such a remarkable story and to try to score political points on it, it’s just — it’s pathetic.”
The RNC circulated his comments to reporters, and CNN anchor John King asked his Twitter followers to decide whether the Democrats’ top messenger had indeed linked the Tea Party to the shooting in Tucson.
Although Wasserman Schultz seemed to be most directly blaming the movement for the level of discourse, not the shooting, the insinuation of a chain of events was unambiguous.
And while political divisiveness was a major topic of discussion in the wake of the shooting, that discussion was prompted by Democrats who questioned whether former Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska), a major Tea Party figure, had indirectly contributed by promoting a political agenda laden in violent imagery. Palin had used “Don't retreat, reload” as a slogan, and her PAC put out ads showing rifle crosshairs over the districts of targeted Democrats — including Giffords's.
DNC Communications Director Brad Woodhouse wrote on Twitter that the chairwoman would never politicize the Tucson tragedy, and that a full reading of the transcript revealed she was only referring to civility in politics.
“Would it kill you folks in the Republican Party to stop making crap up?” he wrote.
Woodhouse and his colleagues also promoted a blog entry by Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group that works to expose conservative media bias and wrote in the chairwoman’s defense.
The two party chairmen have long had a tenuous relationship. Three days earlier, they sparred on "Fox News Sunday" over what Obama’s election had meant for the economy.
“Reince, it’s amusing — disappointing actually — that he seems disappointed in the progress we’ve been able to make,” Wasserman Schultz said.
“Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Nancy Pelosi were out pounding the pavement, warning us that this was going to happen,” Priebus said later, referring to Obama’s 2008 primary against then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). “They called him a hypocrite from the very beginning.”