“This is a deep cultural style of political expression that has developed over 30 years, and it’s not going to be changed overnight,” says former House historian Raymond Smock, who led a staff discussion Monday on the issue at the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies.
“Politics has always been based on fear … keeping people mad, keeping people on the ragged edge,” he adds. “Every once in a while we get sensitized again, but it’s hard to change.”
Rep. Robert Brady (D) of Pennsylvania wants to get the courts involved by expanding the existing ban on threats to top political leaders. His draft bill, which was prompted by Saturday's shootings, provides that all those things you can’t say about a president or vice president – such as statements or symbols expressing intent to kill or injure – you also should not be able to say about other federal officials, including members of Congress.
That means no putting members' faces in a bull’s eye or cross hairs. After the Arizona shootings, Sarah Palin’s PAC website removed a map that put cross hairs on districts around the country where political opponents were targeted for defeat. Palin spokeswoman Rebecca Mansour called the targets on the site “surveying symbols.”
The trouble is, Representative Brady notes, all that fear and hate-infused speech gets the public’s attention. Negative ads can push a candidate over the top – or sink them.