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Posted at 1:58 PM ET, 01/10/2011

When politics stops (and how it never really does)

By Chris Cillizza

The attempted assassination of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on Saturday has effectively ground partisan politics in Washington to a halt.

The planned vote on the repeal of the health care bill, which was scheduled for later this week, has been postponed. President Obama led the nation in a moment of silence this morning. And politicians from both sides have been filling the airwaves with calls to honor Giffords and the other victims by toning down the political rhetoric.

And yet, for all of the shows of unity over the past 48 hours, it's impossible to conclude that politics has -- or will -- stop.

A look back at two recent high profile tragedies that captivated the nation's attention proves the point.

* President George W. Bush saw his approval ratings move from the low 50s to the upper 80s in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Bush's appearance -- with bullhorn in hand -- at the Ground Zero site in the immediate aftermath of the attack became an iconic image of his presidency. And, just over a year later, Republicans made gains in the House and Senate -- bucking the historical trends in midterm elections -- running on a national security message. Bush's 2004 re-election race, too, was defined largely by the attacks of Sept. 11 2001 as he made an explicit appeal to voters not to disrupt a team that had kept the country safe since that day.

* President Bill Clinton was just four months removed from watching his party lose control of the House and the Senate when the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed. Clinton's reaction to the tragedy -- and in particular the speech he gave at the memorial service in which he cast it as a moment to "stand against the forces of fear" -- is widely credited with turning around a presidency that, to that point, had been listless at best. (Republicans highlight that moment as the acme of Clinton's political cynicism, pointing to a memo written by political adviser Dick Morris that assessed the opportunities inherent in the tragedy.)

The simple fact is that any event that draws wall-to-wall media coverage for days -- or possibly even weeks -- has an influence on the body politic. That goes double when the event involves a Member of Congress who was specifically targeted in the attack.

We've already seen the liberal left attack former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for targeting Giffords -- literally -- during the 2010 campaign and the conservative right push back against the notion that the actions of Jared Lee Loughner can be ascribed to a set of coherent political beliefs.

With the country watching, how politicians act -- and react -- is of prime importance. (Remember that most people pay passing attention -- at best -- to politics and politicians with the exception of a few weeks before an election.)

This is especially true of President Obama as, at times of national tragedy, people look to the chief executive to provide sympathy, empathy and reassurance.

Obama, to date, has made only brief public remarks about the shooting. But, there is an expectation that the president will make a speech about the tragedy -- although the timing of such an address remains unclear.

The approach Obama takes in that speech -- is it a narrow-cast address on the senselessness of the crime or broader-scale remarks about the political tone in the country? -- will almost certainly impact the way in which he is perceived by the electorate. (Whether those impressions are in-the-moment or lasting are far more difficult to assess.)

House Republicans, too, must be mindful of the national spotlight shining on them. Their actions so far -- suspension of the House legislative calendar, Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) remarks on the shootings -- have been pitch-perfect but political minefields still await.

The one that carries the most potential danger is the still-planned vote on health care repeal. (A vote could take place as early as next week.) The fight over health care last summer is traced by many observers as a high point in political vitriol and there remains considerable passion about the issue on both sides of the aisle.

Navigating those passions on what is undoubtedly a partisan football of an issue -- there is no reasonable expectation that a repeal effort will work given the Democratic-controlled Senate and White House -- will prove an important test for House Republicans in the wake of the Giffords shooting.

Moments of national tragedy influence the political debate by re-shaping -- whether temporarily or permanently -- the priorities of the American public. How politicians and political parties adapt to those changed circumstances can have major electoral consequences.

By Chris Cillizza  | January 10, 2011; 1:58 PM ET
Categories:  White House  
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