On Wednesday, President Obama raged against Senate Republicans who voted against the Manchin-Toomey compromise on gun control. The president flanked himself with victims of gun violence to browbeat Congress into passing gun reform. In response to Sen. Rand Paul’s (R-Ky.) and others’ accusations that the president had used victims as “props,” President Obama indignantly asked, “Are they serious?!”
I can answer that. Yes, Mr. President, we are serious. Using victims of horrific tragedies to push gun control is a shameful political tactic.
For the past few months, the president has been pulling out all the stops on gun control; substituting a Sandy Hook parent for himself in his weekly address, signing executive actions with children surrounding him, and starting his address on Wednesday with a speech from another Sandy Hook parent. He even invoked the victims of gun violence who sat in the Senate gallery during Wednesday’s controversial vote. “[Senators] blocked common sense gun reforms even while these families looked on from the Senate gallery,” President Obama said.
By using victims to advance his argument, President Obama is debasing political rhetoric in a way that hurts the families of gun violence and ruins civil debate on a serious issue. Here, the president was attacking Republicans for choosing politics over substance; all the while showcasing the personal anguish of gun violence victims to advance his political agenda. The irony seemed to be lost on no one but the president and his speechwriters.
This form of victim waving is worse than politics-as-usual, its demagoguery. The implication behind the president’s display is not that gun control opposition is rooted in flawed policy, but that those opposing his agenda do not care about the victims of gun violence. CNN TV host Piers Morgan wasted no time in making this charge after Wednesday’s controversial vote.
But if the president and Morgan are trying to protect the most vulnerable in mass shootings, why would they throw them into the center of a vicious political debate? Never mind the fact that the administration has seriously failed to prosecute illegal firearm purchases, released hundreds of illegal immigrants from prison, and cut school safety programs by hundreds of millions of dollars. Why is the president letting his Justice Department off the hook when it comes to prosecuting illegal firearms purchases? And doesn’t he care about children who might be victimized by the criminals that his own Department of Homeland Security released?
President Obama is giving grieving victims platforms that are typically reserved for seasoned, public figures. The inevitable result of this tactic is that Republicans have to either give into policy demands or risk looking like they are arguing with the victims of a horrible tragedy. This is precisely why the tactic is so opportunistic. It leaves no room for substantive debate, but gives the president immense leeway for political victory.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is not implying, as President Obama is, that his opponents are blithely ignorant of the victims their policies supposedly create. Instead, he is making arguments about the effects of those policies while offering alternatives. If the president really wants to help the victims of Sandy Hook, he could start by ditching the political theater and focusing on actual compromise with the other side.