It didn’t take long for Washington’s post-shooting talk of unity to begin fraying.
As a top Republican, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, lay in critical condition at a local hospital Thursday, some Republicans on the far right suggested that vitriolic rhetoric on the left could be to blame for the attack that put him there.
“How dare they say such a thing? How dare they?” retorted Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, pointing to a year of venomous attacks by Republicans including President Donald Trump.
A day earlier, a man with a rifle and a handgun wounded Scalise and others at a baseball practice in a park in nearby Alexandria, Virginia. The attacker, who was shot by Scalise’s security detail and later died, was an Illinois man whose social media postings showed anger at Trump and the Republicans.
Trump and others in both parties called for unity — or at least a drastic cooling of rhetorical attacks. But barbed comments weren’t long in coming.
“The center of America is disappearing, and the violence is incited by the leading cultural voices of the Left,” GOP Rep. Steve King of Iowa said over Twitter.
Republican Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania rose on the House floor to issue a call to “replace the hateful rhetoric and resistance with respect,” a comment seemingly aimed at an anti-Trump “Resist” movement.
“The comments made by my Republican colleagues are outrageous,” declared Pelosi, the Democratic leader from California.
Pelosi pointed out that she herself has faced verbal attacks and threats aplenty, including phone calls to her home she blamed on ads critical of her that are airing now in a Georgia House district where a hard-fought special election will take place next week. She accused Republicans of “sanctimony” for suggesting Democrats are the ones to blame.
Pelosi and other Democrats charged that Trump himself bears responsibility for the virulent state of political discourse — and some said for Wednesday’s attack as well, given his embrace of aggressive rhetoric on the campaign trail and the outbreaks of violence at some of his rallies.
“I think that the president contributed to this significantly,” said Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat. Clyburn charged that Trump “is allowed to hide behind political correctness to say all kinds of things about people, and I’m a little bit sick and tired of people saying anything they want to say about anyone they want to say it about.”
At least one Republican shared the view that Trump bore some responsibility for the shootings.
“I would argue that the president is at least — is partially — again, not in any way totally but partially to blame for demons that have been unleashed,” said South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford in an interview on MSNBC.
The finger-pointing came even as lawmakers on both sides called for unity, comity and a more civil political discourse. And the exchanges seemed to encapsulate some realities about the state of the nation’s politics.
Democrats remain deeply upset about Trump’s win and by his presidency, and frustrated over how to channel the energies of a restive and angry base. Convinced that Trump and his Republican allies are largely to blame for the nation’s acrimonious political discourse, many bridle over any suggestion to the contrary.
For their part, some Republicans seem taken aback by an intensity on the left that threatens to overwhelm them in the 2018 midterm elections. Tired of being in a defensive crouch as Trump comes under attack from Democrats and the media for breeching political norms, some jumped at the opportunity to turn the tables and contend that Democrats, too, are part of the problem.
“I can show you messages and stuff that were much worse than this guy’s Facebook posts,” said Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Texas, referring to the assailant in Wednesday’s shooting. “Oh my gosh, mild compared to what they put on TV yesterday.”
Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said he was physically attacked at a town hall event several weeks back. But unlike some other Republicans he was reluctant to assign blame for what happened on Wednesday.
“I’ve obviously noticed a very different tone, but I don’t think it’s helpful” to blame one side or the other, Cramer said. “I’m trying to focus at least myself on internalizing, what can I do better.”
Cramer’s comments echoed others by House members of both parties Thursday. For even as they blamed one another, a large number gave lip service, at least, to a need to assume personal responsibility to try to reduce acrimony on Capitol Hill and around the country. Many seemed genuinely saddened to have reached a point where partisanship has overwhelmed politics, bringing routine legislating to a virtual standstill and all but eliminating any hope for significant bipartisan accomplishments.
As they prepared for a bipartisan baseball game Thursday night that promised at least a brief lull in the political mud fight, some said they hoped the good feeling would last past the final inning.
“I would quote the late, great Michael Jackson,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., a close friend of Scalise’s and the pitcher on the Democrats’ team. “If you want to make a change, start with the man in the mirror.”