Feature:Opinion

Giffords’s inspiring return teaches her colleagues the meaning of class

David Cohen Former Deputy Assistant Sec. of the Interior

What a wonderful surprise it was to see Representative Gabrielle Giffords return to the Capitol to cast her vote in favor of the bipartisan debt ceiling compromise. Giffords’s colleagues from both parties burst into spontaneous cheering and applause as the Arizona Democrat made her first appearance on the House floor since being shot. Giffords scarcely resembled the vivacious young congresswoman she was before the shooting; she looked frail, wore glasses and sported short dark hair. But considering that she was shot point blank in the head less than seven months ago and left for dead, she looked absolutely marvelous.

“I strongly believe that crossing the aisle for the good of the American people is more important than party politics,” Giffords said yesterday in a statement released by her office. “I had to be here for this vote. I could not take the chance that my absence could crash our economy.”

The Democratic caucus split evenly on the bill, which would raise the debt ceiling and slow the growth of the national debt. Giffords thus fostered the spirit of bipartisan compromise with both her presence and her vote — without which the bill would have passed over the objection of a majority of House Democrats.

Shortly before the vote, a number of Giffords’s fellow Democrats referred to Republicans as “terrorists” during a closed-door meeting with Vice President Biden. According to reports, Biden himself used the “T” word to describe Republicans — although he later denied it. Actually, several liberal pundits have accused the GOP of resorting to “terrorism” in the debt ceiling debate. As Bernie Goldberg pointed out about these pundits on “The O’Reilly Factor” Monday, “These people don’t call real terrorists terrorists.”

In the wake of Giffords’s shooting, President Obama purported to usher in a “new era of civility”: “At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized, at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do,” Obama said days after the shooting, “it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

It appears that the president didn’t get his own memo. Members of his party certainly didn’t get it. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) referred to the deal as a “sugar-coated Satan sandwich.” Cleaver thus did not see his disagreement with the GOP as a good faith difference of opinion based on principle, but rather as a battle between good and evil where the other side was doing the work of the devil. And to think that Democrats typically accuse Republicans of dragging their narrow-minded fundamentalism into politics.

The supposed new rules of political civility were violated repeatedly during the debt ceiling debate — although it did not always reach the hysterical excess of invoking Osama bin Laden or the Prince of Darkness. After the Republican-led House passed legislation to raise the debt ceiling for the second time in as many weeks, Sen. Chuck Schumer rather uncivilly snarked that House Republicans were unable “to even tie their own shoes.” Given that the Senate had not passed any debt ceiling legislation at that point and had not even been able to pass a budget for well over two years, Schumer’s remark, as Michele Bachmann might say, took a lot of chooots-pah.

I suppose that in Schumer’s view, the Senate’s virtuosity at tying its own shoes was exemplified by the shameless backroom pork deals — funded by taxpayers — that Harry Reid used to pass an unpopular health care law. I don’t know whether Speaker Boehner is able to tie his own shoes, but he was sure able to hold an unruly Republican caucus together without resorting to the nauseating and corrupt tactics that Reid is famous for.

Throughout the debate, the Democrats sought to portray themselves as the “adults at the table” who were seeking a solution based on “fairness” and “balance” (but not in a Fox News kind of way, of course). But who are the real adults at this table? Those who want to close their eyes and pretend that we can put off addressing our unprecedented levels of spending and debt, in spite of the clear warnings from the rating agencies and the clear example of Greece? Or those who have willed the debt issue onto the national agenda and who insist that we address it before we spend ourselves and our children into bankruptcy? Those who insist on raising taxes out of a misguided sense of “fairness” and “balance,” even though that would make it even harder for those who are struggling the most in this economy to find jobs? Or those with the common sense to see that sucking more money out of the private sector leaves even less money for the investment, hiring and expansion we desperately need to put people back to work? Those who resort to dishonest demagoguery to score cheap political points whenever the other side presents specific plans to control the debt? Or those with the courage to put those plans in writing for the good of the country, notwithstanding the political cost?

One adult at the table is Gabrielle Giffords. It was clearly a strain for her to put herself through the rigors of cross-country travel and attend a hectic public event so soon after the shooting. She insisted on putting herself through that strain for the sake of bipartisanship and for the good of her country. Welcome back, Gabby, and God bless you. We need many more like you on both sides of the aisle.

David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He hosts the debate show “Beer Summit” for PBS Guam.