The talk in political circles has been that Sarah Palin had a rare opportunity in the wake of the Tucson tragedy to reach out beyond her base and recalibrate her image beyond that of a gun-toting mama grizzly.
After all, the strategists said, there was some sympathy for her—beyond the Palin-haters—for being tied to the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, even if she had erred with her “reload” talk and by posting that map with the gun-sight targets last year.
Instead, Palin chose to throw kerosene on the embers of a smoldering national controversy.
“Especially within hours of a tragedy unfolding,” Palin said in a video on her Facebook page, “journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible.”
Blood libel, for those who are not familiar, describes a false accusation that minorities—usually Jews—murder children to use their blood in religious rituals, and has been a historical theme in the persecution of the Jewish people.
Had Palin scoured a thesaurus, she could not have come up with a more inflammatory phrase.
As someone who has argued that linking her rhetoric to the hateful violence of Jared Loughner is unfair, I can imagine that the former governor was angry about how liberal detractors dragged her into this story. But after days of silence, she had a chance to speak to the country in a calmer, more inclusive way. She could have said that all of us, including her, needed to avoid excessively harsh or military-style language, without retreating one inch from her strongly held beliefs.
Instead she went the blood libel route.
She added that blame for the shooting of 20 people should rest “not with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle, not with law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies, not with those who proudly voted in the last election.”
With her defiant video, Palin continued—no, escalated—her war with the press, which plays so well with her strongest supporters (despite a recent thaw in which she actually granted a few interviews to the lamestream media). She continued her us-versus-them approach to political discourse. She punched back at critics rather than trying to fashion a unifying message.
I would say that sounds like the response of someone who wants to stoke her base and further her lucrative career as a culture warrior—not someone who is plotting to run for president.
Update: One thing that Palin’s comments have done, judging from the early coverage, is to take the spotlight off the victims and make this about her—perhaps more so than she intended. Here are some other voices today:
Jonathan Chait, the New Republic: “Okay, it's a little over the top for Sarah Palin to accuse her critics of "blood libel." But she does have a basic point. She had nothing to do with Jared Loughner…What's happening is that Palin has come to represent unhinged grassroots conservatism, and people in the media immediately (and incorrectly) associated Loughner with the far right.”
Andrew Sullivan, the Atlantic: “This message—even at a time of national crisis—was a base-rousing rallying cry, perpetuating her own victimhood and alleged bloodthirstiness of her opponents. One would have thought that Palin, like any responsible person in her shoes right now, could have mustered some sort of regret about the unfortunate coincidence of what she had done in the campaign and what happened afterwards. Wouldn't you? If you had publicly defended a map with cross-hairs on a congresswoman's district, and that congresswoman had subsequently been shot, would you not be able to express even some measure of regret at what has taken place, even while denying, rightly, any actual guilt? Could you not even acknowledge the possibility that your critics have and had a point, including the chief Palin-critic on this, who happens to be struggling for her life in hospital, Gabrielle Giffords.”
John Hinderaker, Powerline: “Palin's statement is, I think, very good. It emphasizes, appropriately, the victims and the nation's political process rather than politicians, demonstrating once again that Palin is less obsessed with Sarah than her enemies are. Overall, the statement comes across as mature, balanced, sympathetic and yet strong in its rejection of the left's opportunism.”
Jonah Goldberg, National Review: “I think that the use of this particular term in this context isn’t ideal. Historically, the term is almost invariably used to describe anti-Semitic myths about how Jews use blood—usually from children—in their rituals. I agree entirely with Glenn [Reynolds’s], and now Palin’s, larger point. But I’m not sure either of them intended to redefine the phrase, or that they should have.
Greg Sargent, Washingtonpost.com: “Unfortunately for Palin, Giffords herself was one of those who objected to the crosshairs map. ‘The way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district,’ Giffords said last March. ‘When people do that, they've gotta realize there's consequences to that action.’
“In other words, Palin's phony framing of the issue—that by raising concerns about her word-choice and imagery, critics are trying to deprive Palin of her First Amendment freedoms, rather than simply asking her to be more mindful of the potential consequences of incendiary rhetoric—is one that Giffords herself rejects.”
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.