In a press conference Thursday morning, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi addressed the spate of threats Democrats have faced over the past few days. Pressed by reporters on whether Republican lawmakers had incited some of those threats, Pelosi offered a measured response. “Words have power. They weigh a ton,” she said. But she also cautioned that crackdowns against such behavior could not impede free speech, and stressed that she didn’t want “to paint everyone who was part of the free expression that happened here with the same brush.”
It was a measured response to an intimidation campaign that has been nothing short of appalling. Death threats have poured in to the offices of Louise Slaughter and Bart Stupak. (You can hear what Stupak’s dealing with here. It ain’t pretty.) A propane line at the home of Virginia Democrat Tom Perriello’s brother was slashed, and in a gesture with less-than-subtle symbolism, a coffin was placed on Democratic Rep. Russ Carnahan’s lawn. More than 100 House Democrats met with representatives from the Capitol Police and FBI on Wednesday, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said at least 10 Democrats have been given enhanced protection.
Tea Partyers are scrambling to dissociate themselves with the fanatical responses to Sunday’s vote. The Tea Party Movement of Florida issued a press release Thursday that repudiated “any person using derogatory characterizations, threats of violence, or disparaging terms towards members of Congress or the President.” Leaders of the Virginia Tea Party group that posted Perriello’s brother’s address, meanwhile, stated that they did not endorse what had happened.
Republican leaders have taken a different approach. On Wednesday, House Minority Leader John Boehner issued a perfunctory denunciation of the threats: “I know many Americans are angry over this health care bill, and that Washington Democrats just aren’t listening,” Boehner said. “But, as I’ve said, violence and threats are unacceptable.” The comment infuriated Perrello. “I thought it his statement was fairly outrageous,” he said. “Every right-thinking person knows this is over the line. These things have to be called out.”
House Minority Whip Eric Cantor also denounced the threats at a news conference on Thursday. “Let me be clear: I do not condone violence. There are no leaders in this building, no rank and file members in this building that condone violence — period,” Cantor said, noting that his own office had been shot at as well. But then he pivoted, excoriating DNC Chair Tim Kaine and Rep. Chris Van Hollen and arguing it was “reckless to use these incidents as media vehicles for political gain.” The tactic, he said, was “reprehensible.” And in an interview with MSNBC, Republican Sen. John Barrasso flashed the same sort of political pirouette: issuing a strenuous denunciation before lapsing into talking points. “There no cause for this. This is not something that’s acceptable,” Barrasso said, before launching into an explanation of how Democrats had betrayed Americans by ignoring the will of the majority.
To be fair, no Republican ever endorsed violence as a way to express opposition to health-care reform, and they undoubtedly regret what’s happened. On the other hand, many stoked anger over the past few months by employing staggering hyperbole over a document they cast as tyrannical and totalitarian. Boehner, for example, called the vote on the bill “Armageddon,” and said Ohio Rep. Steve Driehaus could be a “dead man” in his largely red Cincinnati district. I can understand if he and other Republicans are upset about being grouped with the extremists chucking bricks through windows. But by condemning violence and blasting Democrats in the same breath, Republican leaders implicitly validate the anger spurring these incidents. Instead of defusing the situation, this sort of response escalates it.