Parallels to 1995

PARALLELS TO 1995…. President Obama will travel to Tucson tomorrow to attend a memorial service for the victims of Saturday’s massacre. He will also visit with families, and is expected to deliver some remarks about what transpired.

As these developments unfold, we can expect to see one reference point repeated quite a bit: Oklahoma City.

In general, I tend to roll my eyes when the media draws hackneyed historical parallels for presidential challenges. Last year, for example, the BP oil spill was not “Obama’s Katrina,” but news outlets couldn’t seem to help themselves.

And this week, the chosen parallel is the terrorist attack on the Murrah Federal Building in 1995. Howard Fineman emphasized the connection yesterday, highlighting the effect it had on Bill Clinton’s presidency, and the lead story for most of the day yesterday on Politico had this headline: “Barack Obama’s Oklahoma City moment.”

While I continue to think this constant drive to compare circumstances to previous circumstances is misplaced, this one isn’t wrong. The differences matter, of course. Timothy McVeigh was a monster with a defined ideological axe to grind; Jared Lee Loughner appears to be a schizophrenic with a tenuous connection to reality. The scope of the violence is also clearly different — the OKC bombings were, at the time, the largest terrorist attack ever to occur on American soil, while the violence in Tucson is, tragically, not unprecedented.

That said, from a purely political perspective, we can see similarities. A Democratic president generates right-wing rage and over-the-top conservative rhetoric; a motivated GOP base creates a wave election; and bloodshed offers the national leader a chance to remind Americans about the values that bind us together.

[T]he shootings in Tucson on Saturday, which he has decried as a “national tragedy,” present a critical opportunity to a president at a crossroads, a chance for Obama to elevate the debased tenor of politics, much as President Bill Clinton attempted in the aftermath of the 1995 terrorist attack in Oklahoma City.

Paul Begala, one of Clinton’s top political advisers during the 1990s, thinks Obama has a genuine opportunity to re-define the nation’s political debate — a promise he first made in his breakout 2004 speech to the Democratic convention — and reclaim moral high ground lost during the last two years of intense partisan combat.

“One of the things I learned from Oklahoma City is not to rush to judgment…We don’t know this Arizona animal’s motive,” said Begala.

“But almost irrespective of that, it wouldn’t hurt for all of us to tone things down a bit — myself included. If the President uses this tragedy to challenge us all to move to higher ground, it would be a welcome message. And if the right tries to demonize him for doing that, they will look small and petty and extreme.”

Veteran Democratic consultant Dan Gerstein said the crisis “really plays to Obama’s strengths as consensus-builder” and gives him the opportunity to build a deeper emotional connection with the people he governs.

If we look back at 1995 as the moment that Clinton responded to the attack, rallied the electorate, regained his stature, and put himself on the easy path to re-election, that would be an overly simplistic recollection. But 16 years ago, the president did lay down a marker on tolerance and public respect.

I doubt very much the Obama White House will take any steps towards trying to capitalize politically on Saturday’s shooting. There is, however, a moment at hand in which much of the country is listening and wouldn’t mind a message of hope. We saw this in 1995, and we’re seeing it again now.