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Politics

A Time for Leadership

The Arizona shootings give lawmakers a chance to tone down the rhetoric.

This week in Washington, members of Congress will work in a manner that has been largely absent in recent years.

Quietly.

Calmly.

Rationally.

The senseless shootings in Arizona over the weekend will bring a temporary halt to the partisan bickering and name-calling that have dominated the discourse. Instead of turning to a contentious, doomed-to-fail bid to repeal President Obama’s health care law, somber lawmakers will focus on their own security and on paying tribute to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who was seriously wounded, and to six others who died Saturday, including a member of her staff.

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Soon enough, though, the House and Senate will get back to serious legislative issues such as the health law, debating whether to extend the federal debt ceiling and setting spending levels in the budget for the next fiscal year.

With those debates, partisan differences will resurface. The big question is whether the rancor that has poisoned Washington in recent years returns, too.

It is too early in the investigation to say whether antigovernment sentiment had anything to do with Saturday’s shootings. But in a way, it doesn’t matter. Congress can -- and should -- use this moment to step back and start over in doing the people’s work without the yelling, finger-pointing and posturing.

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Naive on my part? Perhaps. But something needs to be done to quell political tensions, and this horrific crime provides the opening to do it.

The last time antigovernment feelings reached this level was in 1995. While Republicans had just used the Contract with America to claim majorities in the House and Senate, citizen militia movements were talking openly of a contract on America. Talk radio fanned the flames. And then, in one ugly moment, 168 people died in the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City.

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In the aftermath of that awful day, then-President Bill Clinton stepped forward to calm fears and ease tensions with some reassuring words. There were many occasions when Clinton came up short in the leadership department, but in the aftermath of the bombings he was stellar.

The same goes for President George W. Bush in the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Like him or not, you have to credit Bush for not only uniting the country but also for helping to calm anti-Muslim fears that easily could have gotten out of hand in that frightening time.

But somewhere along the line, starting with the 2004 Swift Boat campaign against Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry of Massachusetts, the political discourse began another plunge to the bottom.

President Obama is a better orator than either Clinton or Bush, but he has not demonstrated that he is a better communicator. This is his chance. And the State of the Union address later this month is his stage.

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He needs to set aside his propensity to lecture and speak from the heart. He needs to treat House Speaker John Boehner, who will be sitting behind him with Vice President Biden, as an equal in the fight to restore rational thinking to the political process.

Republicans and Democrats don’t have to agree on everything. Indeed, they shouldn’t. The two-party system essentially guarantees that the minority always has a say -- and a chance in the next elections to reclaim power.

Lawmakers can’t change the minds of those at the fringes of politics and society, but they can demonstrate to the reasonable majority of Americans that it is possible to disagree reasonably. They can show by example that disagreement does not require destruction.

That’s a huge step, but the president and lawmakers from both parties need to take it together.

This is a time to march forward, not look to place blame.

What’s past is past. Nothing can put the bullets back in the gun.

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