The mystery of the Boston bombing has offered an unusual respite from everyone’s least favorite feature of democratic politics: Using horrible tragedies for immediate, partisan political gain.
The most strident voices in American politics — members of Congress, mostly — have almost entirely resisted efforts to blame the opposite political party for the bombing. The centralized conversation on Twitter has, largely, slapped down attempts on the edges of the partisan talk radio shows and blogosphere to draw big conclusions about Islamic radicals or antigovernment conservatives out of the rubble. This is a striking departure from other recent horrors: The murder of Americans from Tucson to Benghazi immediately took on a sharply political hue.
There are two reasons for this relative silence. One is the information vacuum, making all but the most reflexive partisans worried about embarrassment should they leap to conclusions.
The other reason, however, may be that the partisan arguments that have defined the national security conversation since Sept. 11, 2001, are falling apart. A Democratic president who conducted a small invasion of a nominal ally to kill a terror mastermind faces a growing wave of bipartisan criticism over his bloody drone war. A new, libertarian right is on the march. At the center is a fraying, muscular bipartisan consensus represented by figures in both parties like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator John McCain. There’s no obvious partisan purchase on many security issues — and Americans surveyed by Gallup last month worry less about terrorism than they have at any time in the last 12 years.
This week, that confluence of factors may be something to be thankful for.
“Amid our grief and sorrow over this attack, we should, I think, be grateful for the interval between the crime and politics,” the foreign policy scholar Walter Russell Mead wrote Tuesday. “It allows us to treat the horror on its own terms, to see the pure evil of this act divorced from any rationalization or justification.”
This is not to say that tragedies should not be “politicized.” Attacks starting with the 18th century impressment of American sailors by the British have spurred public outrage and action. The gruesome trial of an abortion doctor produces an argument about abortion; gun crimes produce arguments about guns. But there are more and less rational versions of this. Last year, during a presidential campaign, the inconclusive disaster at Benghazi was shoehorned into a partisan frame, as Republicans stretched to it into a symbol of American weakness while Democrats swallowed their qualms to defend the State Department’s management.
“Moments of crisis reveal the single-mindedness of the loons in both parties. Since they already have the answer, they are just waiting to asked the question, ‘Who is at fault?’” said the Republican political strategist Alex Castellanos. “On the right, someone will stand up and say a particular crisis is God’s judgement on our decaying society and on the left, someone will find a way to blame it on the weather.”
Aside from a brief scrum over whether the White House would call the bombings terrorism (it did), there have, so far, been only two clear efforts in Washington to chalk up political points out of the Boston Marathon. Ultraconservative Iowa Rep. Steve King made a clumsy and irrational effort to tie the bombing, and the brief detention of a Saudi student — since cleared — to illegal immigration. And Politico noted Wednesday that a Georgia congressman had last year questioned the use of the National Guard to defend the marathon; though there has been little suggestion that organizers had sought high security at the finish line.
Neither of these seem to have caught on.
“Right now you are seeing a number of political actors experimenting with what’s over the line and what’s not,” said Heather Hurlburt, who leads the National Security Network, a Democratic group, and also pointed to the nature of the attack as a factor in the relative caution of politicians. “The more serious the security crisis, the closer to home, the more hesitant political parties are to jump in — and the more willing to quash their members who get out in front in ways that are viewed as inappropriate. So compare the willingness to make hay out of Benghazi, which killed more Americans but was farther from home, not part of the fabric of our lives, with Boston,” she said.
But veterans of the bitter national security debate that began Sept. 11, 2001 don’t think the unusual political silence will last.” Boston too, they predict, will become a talking point — as soon, at least, as investigators name a suspect.
“I just think too much is unknown for anyone to risk taking a partisan shot, because the downside risk is so high — i.e., a Republican says, ‘this is because Obama has been weak on Islamism’ and it turns out that it’s an antigovernment crazy,” said Noah Pollak, the executive director of the Emergency Committee For Israel, an aggressive Republican player in Washington’s national security battles.
Ordinary politics, he noted, depends on information: Leaked memos, emerging many months after 9/11, produced a Democratic view that President George W. Bush had ignored crucial information. Early reporting on the “underwear bomber,” by contrast, produced quick attacks from former Vice President Dick Cheney.
So when the information comes, we should probably brace for the food fight.
“The nonpartisan atmosphere around Boston will dissipate quickly the moment real information about the perp comes to light,” said Pollak.
“It has been so blessedly long since a domestic attack of any size that the playbook has to some extent been rewritten,” said Hurlburt. “But it’s coming.”
Said Castellanos: “I doubt the stillness will last.”