'War' of words returns to party campaign messaging post Giffords shooting

Fifteen months after the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords led to calls for politicians to tone down their rhetoric, Republicans and Democrats are prominently using “war” in their respective campaign messages. 

Members of both parties had urged their colleagues to ratchet down the animus following the January 2011 assassination attempt on former Rep. Giffords (D-Ariz.), who was targeted by a gunman during a political event in her district.

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Yet just over a year later, Democratic leaders are accusing Republicans of waging a “war on women,” while GOP presidential hopefuls, including Mitt Romney, have charged President Obama of engaging in a “war against religion.”

The choice of language has raised the eyebrows of some senior Democrats, who say allusions to war and violence have no place in partisan politics.

“I don’t like war on anything,” Rep. George Miller (Calif.), head of the Democratic Policy Committee and a close ally of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said Wednesday when asked if his party’s “war on women” attack goes too far.

Miller said the rhetoric is “all too much,” indicating members did not learn lessons from the Giffords shooting.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), a friend of Giffords’s, echoed that message, saying “very few” lawmakers have changed their political talking points since last January’s shooting.

“That should have been a teaching moment,” Pascrell said. “I don’t believe it really was.” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), sounded a similar warning this month, saying the Democrats’ “war against women” campaign is “wrong” because it exaggerates the Republicans’ policy positions. 

“Yes, that is wrong, and I have never said it, not one time,” Cleaver told CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “I condemn it.”

Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, who has decried the use of angry political speech, did not comment for this article. 

The use of the word “war” in politics has a long history, including the “war on drugs” in the 1980s and the “war on terrorism” following the 9/11 attacks. 

But there was a reassessment of that type of discourse last year. 

Giffords was hosting a “Congress on Your Corner” event outside a Tucson grocery store when a gunman on a rampage shot 19 people. Six bystanders were killed — including a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl — and 13 were injured, including Giffords. A 22-year-old man named Jared Loughner was charged in the shooting spree and awaits trial.

Giffords returned to Capitol Hill to vote on the nation’s debt ceiling, but has since stepped down to focus on her recovery.

Following the shooting, a long list of Democrats and political pundits suggested the sharp partisan tone of the national political debate — replete with violent imagery — might have fostered an environment provoking the attack.

During the 2010 midterm campaign, Sarah Palin’s website featured a “target list” of 20 House Democrats the former vice presidential contender hoped to defeat that year, including Giffords.

There was never any evidence that emerged, however, that linked the assassination attempt to the words of public figures. 

Before she was shot, Giffords warned of consequences, telling MSNBC the “rhetoric is incredibly heated.” 

Against the backdrop of Giffords’s miraculous recovery, lawmakers representing the left and the right alike called on their colleagues to change their ways. 

“It’s been a much angrier, confrontational environment over the last two or three years than we have experienced in the past,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said in the days following the shooting. “I think there is worry about that.”

“We ought to cool it, tone it down,” echoed Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). 

In this Congress, the phrase “war on women” and “war on women’s health” has been used 45 times on the House and Senate floors. “War on religion” has been invoked as well, but not as much as during the Republican presidential primary. 

Some lawmakers said this week that the rhetoric leading up to the Giffords shooting was much worse than the “war on women” and “war on religion” slogans the parties are pushing this year.

“We’re talking about two different things,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), senior Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “The comments [today] are more philosophically based. … It’s much more civil now.” 

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said, “A war on something doesn’t have to be a military war. There’re so many words that have double and triple meanings. … You know it when you see it when it crosses the line.”

Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), a member of the House GOP leadership team, said the criticism of fiery campaign speech has been overblown — both then and now — adding that today’s war-related campaign messages are “just politics.”

“The notion that the tragedy to Gabby occurred because of the rhetoric is simply untrue,” Price said. “This [Loughner] was a remarkably unstable individual.”

Julian E. Zelizer, political scientist at Princeton University, said this year’s slogans — the “war on women” and “war on religion” — are examples of “traditional political rhetoric.”  

“There’s an apples-and-oranges element to the comparison,” Zelizer said, referring to the rhetoric before the shooting. “That said, politicians are sometimes like children. They fight, and they get very aggressive with each other, and you tell them to stop and they stop and promise never to do it again, and by the end of the day they’re doing it again.” 

A number of observers said the media is to blame for the tone in Washington.

Miller said the use of wars in political speeches is aimed at capturing the attention of the 24-7 news cycle, which he said is more interested in sound bites than policy battles.

Zelizer agreed. 

“The real issue with Giffords is gun control, trying to understand why guns are so readily available and why there’s very little policy change,” Zelizer said. “But for a lot of reporters or editors, you get more eyeballs if you talk about politicians making [aggressive] statements rather than gun-control policy.

 “It’s not as exciting as two politicians yelling at each other.”

Bob Cusack contributed to this article.