Boehner and the Birthers: Do the Right Thing, Mr. Speaker

John Boehner said the right things last week. "An attack on one who serves is an attack on all who serve," he told us in the first statement he released after the shooting in Tucson. In the well of the House of Representatives four days later he choked up as he delivered remarks that concluded, "Our hearts are broken, but our spirit is not. This is a time for the House to lock arms, in prayer for those fallen and wounded, and in resolve to carry on the dialogue of democracy. We may not yet have all the answers, but we already have the answer that matters most: that we are Americans, and together we will make it through this. We will have the last word. God bless this House. God bless this Congress. God bless America." (For once, Boehner's tears were appropriate -- shed in sorrow over the suffering of others, not in self-pity, mixed with self-congratulation, over how he overcame humble beginnings to live the American Dream. He put himself through college by working as a janitor. Give the man a medal -- why, there can't be more than fifty or a hundred... million Americans alive today who have who have cleaned floors, waited tables, answered phones, painted houses, or minded children to pay for their educations. Of course, some people work as janitors their entire lives. What do John Boehner's tears at the thought of his janitorial history say about the lives they lead?)

Yes, the new speaker of the House said the right things after the attack on Gabrielle Giffords. But he didn't say all the right things.

We may never know why Jared Lee Loughner tried to kill Gabrielle Giffords on January 8 -- certainly speculating as to his motive on the basis of his posted reading list, as many, particularly one of the most incendiary and dim-witted members of Congress, have done, is idiotic. His inclusion of Peter Pan on the list tells us as much as his inclusion of The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, and Plato's Republic -- which is to say, not a thing. After jumping to the conclusion that Palin et al. were responsible for the rampage, the media then rushed to exonerate them, all while Loughner himself has told the police nothing of his motive. Even if this one deranged young man harbored no explicit political agenda, is it too much of a leap of thought to suggest that a political environment full of rage and menace might have had some effect on him?

But even assuming that partisan politics played no role in Loughner's decision to empty his high-capacity ammunition clip at that Safeway parking lot, our nation shouldn't let pass this opportunity to address issues the incident has raised. Clear Channel had it right in taking down the Rush Limbaugh billboard in Tucson that depicted bullet holes and called the radio host a "straight shooter." Yes, it's only a metaphor, but it's the wrong metaphor for Tucson right now.

Indeed, it's the wrong metaphor for all of us right now. To say that our discourse is uncivil misses the point. It's not that we call each other names; it's that one side, the right, has over the past two years created a climate of hatred, tinged with the threat of violence, toward Democrats in general and President Obama in particular. Citizens show up outside an Obama speech carrying firearms; Sarah Palin publishes her map; a GOP Senate candidate talks of "second amendment remedies"; a campaign poster for Giffords's Republican opponent in November shows him holding an assault rifle; Tea Party followers continually quote Jefferson's "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants," thus hinting at the need for armed insurrection. Because so many Washington commentators feel the need for "balance" -- because they would rather be evenhanded than tell the truth -- they have cited isolated instances of Democrats using violent metaphors to assert that both sides are equally at fault. They aren't. The vast bulk of the offensive language and imagery has emanated from the right -- and not just from whack jobs on the edge who struggle to make their anger heard, but from Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann, people whose large platforms guarantee them large influence within the Republican Party.

As appalling as is the air of violence coming from the right, what makes it possible is the other theme in the rhetoric -- the idea that this president is not legitimate, is a devil. Is the devil. He's a man who adheres to a foreign ideology, Marxism; who is lying about his true and foreign faith, Islam, and his true and foreign place of birth, Kenya. This depiction is what makes the unthinkable thinkable, especially on the part of people not well equipped to separate metaphor from reality. After all, if Barack Obama is a communist, fascist, tyrannical usurper, then anything is justified in removing him and his followers, as long as the doers are brave enough to face the consequences for performing their patriotic duty.

Saddest in all this is the cowardice at the top of what we now laughingly call the Party of Lincoln. The putative adults in the GOP -- people like Boehner and Mitch McConnell - generally speak in less inflammatory tones than Palin and Limbaugh. But if they do not give voice to the hatred themselves, they nonetheless condone it, because they see its political utility. Here is why Obama's persistence in trying to relate to his political opponents on the basis of reasoned argument has been so ineffective: today's Republicans are not, publicly at least, reasonable people. Have we ever heard one senior GOP legislator tell the birthers where to get off? Or call out Rush Limbaugh on his obvious and crude racism? Has Boehner, McConnell, or any of their lieutenants condemned the talk-radio god's assertion last week that Jared Lee Loughner has the "full support" of the Democratic Party? Or said what needs to be said about Sarah Palin's disgusting reference to blood libel?

Of course not. Boehner et al. fear Limbaugh, as they fear Palin, as they fear Beck, as they fear all who attend Tea Party rallies. (Look at how quickly Tim Pawlenty, a man who wants to be our president, walked back his criticism of Palin last week.) The Republican Party rode the Tea Party tiger to victory in November and hopes to continue riding it to the recapture of the White House in 2012. And one does not risk riling a tiger, especially when that tiger is advancing so fast and so far toward one's goal. The Republican Party is in thrall to the Tea Party, even as senior members of the GOP must recognize the political peril inherent in embracing extreme views, extreme language, and extreme thinking.

Boehner's awkwardness in dealing with the birther issue perfectly illustrates his dilemma. The day he was handed the speaker's gavel he spoke to NBC's Brian Williams. Williams brought up a bill, co-sponsored by twelve members of Boehner's caucus, premised on doubts about Obama's citizenship. Williams asked, "Would you be willing to say, 'This is a distraction? I've looked at it to my satisfaction, let's move on'?"

"The state of Hawaii has said that President Obama was born there," Boehner answered. "That's good enough for me." Note that he did not answer the reporter's question. Nor did he say, simply, that Obama is a natural-born citizen - a fact, not an opinion, as he surely knows.

Williams continued: " Would you be willing to say that message to the twelve members in your caucus who seem to either believe otherwise, or are willing to express doubt and have co-sponsored legislation?" To which the speaker answered, "Brian, when you come to the Congress of the United States, there are 435 of us. We're nothing more than a slice of America. People come regardless of party labels, they come with all kinds of beliefs and ideas. It's the melting pot of America. It's not up to me to tell them what to think."

Boehner, a legislating professional and a Washington veteran, knows damn well that while it may not be up to him to tell the members of the House what to think, it most certainly is up to him to tell the members of his caucus what to say, how to vote, and what bills to withdraw. He also must know that the birther business could prove to be a political liability in 2012 - swing voters, who decide every presidential election, must see the issue as a particularly loathsome "distraction" from what they voted this Congress in to do: provide jobs. Yet Boehner seems to consider himself powerless to enforce discipline in his caucus, to set sensible, politically productive priorities and tell his backbenchers to get in line as the party seeks to either fix the economy or, if the economy remains broken, fix blame for it on the president.

If John Boehner wishes to be taken seriously as a national leader concerned for the welfare of all Americans, and not just as a partisan hack intent on increasing his party's share of the power pie, he needs to do the right thing, and do it now. He needs to tell the House birthers to cut the crap. He needs to tell Sarah Palin that the slings and arrows she's suffered over the last week and a half do not rival the historic suffering of the Jewish people. He may not be able to tell radio talkers what to say, but he needs to reassure Americans not among the Republican base that the foul-mouthed Limbaugh and the preposterous Beck do not speak for him or for one of America's two great political parties. Don't we have the right to expect that a national leader act with moral purpose? Or are our standards so debased that we would be shocked by a leader who risks political ruin to do his patriotic duty?

John Boehner needs to summon the courage to take charge of his caucus and restore in his party an abhorrence to violent overtones in political debate. As the new speaker he has the platform; after Tucson he has a perfect opportunity. Does he have the guts?

Statesman or hack, Mr. Speaker? Bold leader or servile follower?

Someone - and if not Washington's new top Republican, then who? - needs to pull the GOP back from the brink, because the Party of Lincoln is going over the edge and is taking the country with it.

Now that's something to cry about.