In American politics, nothing’s sacred—or at least, nothing’s quite so sacred that it can’t be exploited for tactical gain. Partisans began hurling accusations of political opportunism back and forth barely hours after Jared Lee Loughner allegedly killed six and wounded 14 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in Tucson on Saturday. Amid the usual din of partisan politics, a few activists and politicians have stuck out for their unabashed willingness to cash in on the tragedy. Here are the worst offenders—so far.
1. Arizona Citizens Defense League
The shooting has understandably opened up a dialogue about gun rights in America. It’s one thing to espouse a gun-rights or gun-control agenda, but it’s another thing to co-opt the names of shooting victims in its service. Witness the “Giffords-Zimmerman Act,” named for Giffords and her aide Gabriel Zimmerman, who died in the attack. The bill would require that the state of Arizona train elected officials and their staffs in gun handling. It’s true that Giffords has a pro-gun track record, but there’s a big difference between the Brady Bill, for which Jim Brady and his wife Sarah personally lobbied, and the hasty appropriation of victims’ names without their consent.
2. Democratic Party Hacks
It might seem crass to say it, but in the wake of the shooting, Democrats are likely to earn sympathy—as Ross Douthat writes, when an American politician is attacked, he or she tends to become more popular. But it’s one thing to passively receive that sympathy and another to manipulate it, though both parties often do so (Rudy Giuliani and 9/11, anyone?). One “veteran Democratic operator” was surprisingly willing to admit it aloud, though, telling Politico—anonymously, of course, that his party needs “to deftly pin this on the tea partiers. Just like the Clinton White House deftly pinned the Oklahoma City bombing on the militia and anti-government people.” It might be good politics, but it certainly isn’t good taste.
3. Tim Pawlenty
Let’s say you’re a presidential contender struggling to get out from the shadow of better-known rivals. Can you use the shooting to your advantage? Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty apparently thinks so. As pundits and liberals criticized Sarah Palin, labeling her map of “targets” for the 2010 midterms a perfect example of corrosive political discourse, he piled on. Although his presumptive rival for the 2012 GOP nomination can’t be blamed for the attack, Pawlenty told Good Morning America, “It wouldn’t have been my style to put the crosshairs on there.” Just a spur of the moment reaction to a reporter’s question? Probably not: a day earlier, he made nearly identical comments to The New York Times, saying, “I wouldn’t have done it.”
4. Paul Kanjorski
Taking to the pages of The New York Times on Monday, Paul Kanjorski—a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania who didn’t win reelection in 2010—implored Americans to maintain civility to avoid creating distance between the people and their representatives. But as the Washington Examiner’s Mark Hemingway noted, that’s not the tune Kanjorski was singing in October, when he said of then-candidate and now-governor Rick Scott of Florida, “Instead of running for governor of Florida, they ought to have him and shoot him. Put him against the wall and shoot him. He stole billions of dollars from the United States government and he’s running for governor of Florida.” Contrast that with vitriolic Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi’s soul-searching essay on his own reaction. It’s not often that Taibbi outclasses anyone, but Kanjorski looks plainly hypocritical here.
5. Rush Limbaugh and Markos Moulitsas
We’ve intentionally left pundits off this list, because they don’t have the same skin in the game that politicians and activists have. But two extreme examples, one from the left and one from the right, stick out as being particularly craven. Radio host Rush Limbaugh and liberal blogger Markos Moulitsas both thrive on making inflammatory statements; it’s what gives them attention and influence. Moulitsas, the founder of Daily Kos, started quickly, pinning the blame squarely on Sarah Palin the day of the shooting, despite lacking any evidence. It took Limbaugh a little longer, but he’s been perhaps even more inflammatory, saying that liberals “openly wish for such disaster in order to profit from it” and later adding that Loughner has “the full support” of the Democratic Party.
6. Peter King
Ordinarily, it’s hard for a lowly member of the House to get much attention. A representative has to either say outlandish things or else introduce headline-grabbing legislation, and for New York Republican Peter King, the Giffords shooting provided a good opening for the latter (although to be fair, he’s tried the outlandish tack out before). King’s solution: ban the carrying of firearms within 1,000 feet of members of Congress and federal judges. It’s not the idea of gun control that makes his proposal suspect, it’s the shape. So narrowly focused as to be nearly meaningless and unenforceable, King must realize that his bill has no chance of being enacted (in fact, Speaker John Boehner has effectively already quashed it), making it little more than a publicity stunt.
7. Clarence Dupnik
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was understandably upset when he delivered his first comments on the Giffords shooting on Saturday. “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous, and unfortunately I think Arizona has become sort of the capital. We have become the mecca for hatred and bigotry,” said the lawman, who’s a friend of Giffords. He took mild heat for the statement, especially from conservative commentators. But what first seemed like an off-the-cuff, emotional remark has turned into a full-on media tour. In the days since, he’s been frequently quoted, continuing his jeremiad about political rhetoric and generally taking the spotlight. It’s prompted a push to recall Dupnik, who’s been sheriff since 1980, and calls for him to stick to enforcing the law.
8. Bernie Sanders
As a socialist, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders should be well acquainted with the statement, attributed to Lenin, that we should look for the one who benefits. Sanders himself seemed to be hoping to benefit from the Giffords shooting with an email he sent to supporters on Tuesday and that The Weekly Standard acquired. The senators starts off by mentioning that he wanted to speak about the tragedy, then adding that he encouraged supporters to donate for his 2012 election campaign, saying, “the Republican Party, big money corporate interests and right-wing organizations will vigorously oppose me.” Perhaps Sanders saw the two as discrete, but if so, he didn’t communicate it clearly, drawing condemnation for fundraising from the shooting.
9. Tea Party Express
An appeal from the Tea Party Express, a leading Tea Party group, left no such ambiguity, making them more willing to literally cash in than anyone else. In an email Monday, Sal Russo furiously denied any links between Loughner and the right—then asked recipients for money to help fight the smears. “We have nothing to do with this awful, tragic event in Arizona,” he wrote. “But we will still fight just as passionately for this country we love, and the vision of our Founding Fathers as outlined by the Constitution and Declaration of Independence ... We ask you to please stand with the Tea Party Express and show your support for our efforts.” It doesn’t get much clearer—or more shameless—than that.