In 2006, about five years after the 9/11 attacks, some on the right did something unexpected: they began going after family members of 9/11 victims. In one especially memorable outburst, Ann Coulter, a notable provocateur of the day, said the widows of victims “demand that we listen to them out of pity,” when they should just “take their money and shut up about it.”
It was jarring because it was unexpected. In our public discourse, vitriol was and is common, but those who lost loved ones on 9/11 seemed like the last group of people who’d face political attacks from anyone. And yet, in 2006, it happened anyway.
Seven years later, I wonder if we might be witnessing a replay with the family members of victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre.
Last week, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) characterized Newtown families as manipulated rubes, under the misguided impression that the debate over gun violence “has something to do with them when, in fact, it doesn’t.” A few days later, Rush Limbaugh made a similar argument, characterizing these family members as “human shields” for Democrats.
Drudge complained last week about the Newtown families getting “Clintonite handlers,” and Politico reported that there’s “nothing subtle” about the family members’ lobbying efforts, to the chagrin of annoyed Republicans on Capitol Hill.
A group of experienced operators is guiding these families – to a degree that has irritated some pro-gun Republicans. An uber-strategist for the families is Ricki Seidman, a familiar face at the top levels of Democratic politics ever since she ran the Clinton-Gore campaign’s famous 1992 war room. Seidman, a senior principal with TSD Communications, was Vice President Joe Biden’s communications director during the 2008 general election, and helped the White House win confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotmayor.
Bennett’s Third Way connected the families with a lobbying firm, Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, that set up more than 25 Hill meetings this week alone. And Lara Bergthold, a veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns now with Griffin, Schein in Los Angeles, is helping to manage the media onslaught.
If this sounds like the sort of story a congressional Republican office pitched to Politico, in the hopes of taking the families down a peg, you and I are thinking the same way.
To be sure, I don’t imagine we’ll hear any Republican pundits whining that these families “demand that we listen to them out of pity,” when they should just “take their money and shut up about it.” Then again, given the state of the conservative movement in 2013, I suppose anything’s possible.
But these are the first hints of real pushback. The Newtown families have proven to be a powerful force, and we have probably reached a point at which the right, fearful of their efficacy, feels the need to tell Republican lawmakers who may be swayed that while they may seem sympathetic, these families have experienced Democratic “operators” guiding them.
In the meantime, E.J. Dionne Jr. raises an excellent point about the Newtown families their critics probably don’t want to hear.
Because the accounts from the Sandy Hook families have been so moving and so wrenching, it is common to say that a gun bill is being carried along “on a wave of emotion.” There is nothing wrong with honest emotion, but the implication is that we are acting on guns in a way we would not act if our judgments were based on pure reason or a careful look at the evidence.
This has it exactly backward.
The truth is that the Newtown slaughter has finally moved the gun debate away from irrational emotions, ridiculous assumptions, manipulative rhetoric – and, on the part of politicians, debilitating terror at the alleged electoral reach of those who see any new gun regulations as a step into totalitarianism. These bills are being taken seriously precisely because we are finally putting emotion aside. We are riding a wave of reason.