From ‘Job Killing’ To ‘Death Panels,’ Republicans Have Numbed Us To The Imagery Of Their Rhetoric

Following Saturday’s tragedy in Tucson, Arizona, which led to the death of six people and the serious injury of 20 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) echoed the growing call for a more civil political discourse by challenging Republicans to change the name of their health care repeal legislation. “The bill, titled the ‘Repeal the Job Killing Health Care Law Act,’ was set to come up for a vote this week, but in the wake of Gabby’s shooting, it has been postponed at least until next week,” she wrote in a blog post on the Huffington Post :

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not suggesting that the name of that one piece of legislation somehow led to the horror of this weekend — but is it really necessary to put the word “killing” in the title of a major piece of legislation? I don’t think that word is in there by accident — my Republican friends know as well as anyone the power of words to send a message. But in this environment and at this moment in our nation’s history, it’s not the message we should be sending.

The GOP has relied on the phrase “job killing” to frame the repeal effort as an economic endeavor that will help create American jobs and sustain the economy, but conservatives probably didn’t give much thought to the implications of the word “killing,” having relied on the rhetoric of ‘life and death’ so frequently throughout the health care reform debate. In fact, if it wasn’t for Saturday’s shooting, few people would have seriously considered the real meaning of the GOP’s words. In the aftermath of “death panels,” suggestions that the law may “cost you your life“, kill more people, and abort babies, the Republicans have downright numbed us all to their frequent use of death imagery as a tool to ferment political opposition. A quick look through the past 18 months or so reveals a stunning array of messages warning Americans that the Democrats’ signature legislation would lead to death.

Speaking at the Center for American Progress on the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing which killed 168 people, including 19 children under the age of six, former President Bill Clinton drew parallels between that incident and the current atmosphere of right-wing, anti-government hatred. He specifically pointed to the influence of right-wing media in the 90s, saying that those hate radio hosts “understood clearly that emotion was more powerful than reason most of the time, and it happened that they got much bigger listenership, and more advertisers, and more commercial success, if they kept people in the white heat.” People like Timothy McVeigh were “highly vulnerable to the suggestions and implications of the most militant rhetoric of the time.” “We can’t let the debate veer so far into hatred that we lose focus of our common humanity,” he said. “We can’t ever fudge the fact that there’s a basic line dividing criticism from violence or its advocacy, and that the closer you get to the line and the more responsibility you have, you have to think about the echo chamber in which your words resonate”:

Oklahoma City proved that beyond the law, there is no freedom, and there is a difference between criticizing a policy or a politician, and demonizing the government that guarantees our freedoms and the public servants who implement them. And the more prominence you have in politics or media or some other pillar of public life, the more you have to keep that in mind. I acknowledged that in my political career, I had more on than one occasion, in the face of a government policy I disagreed with or a practice that I thought was insensitive, referred in a disparaging way generally to “federal bureaucrats,” as if all of them were arrogant or insensitive or unresponsive, and I have never done it again. You could not read the stories of the lives of the people who perished in Oklahoma City and not respond in that way.

In 2009, then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) similarly condemned the GOP’s rhetoric saying, “I have concerns about some of the language that is being used. … I saw this myself in the late ’70s in San Francisco. This kind of rhetoric…was very frightening and it created a climate in which…violence took place. … I wish that we would all…curb our enthusiasm in some of the statements that are made, understanding that some of…the ears that it is falling are not as balanced as the person making the statement might assume.”

Republicans will have an opportunity to set a new tone with they take up the health care repeal measure next week, but it remains to be see if they’ll be willing to give up a rather effective massaging strategy in the interest of the public good.

Cross-posted on The Wonk Room.