The Tea Party Path to the Presidency Just Got Tougher

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Whether or not it's fair to blame Jared Lee Loughner's shooting rampage against Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on overheated political rhetoric and violent imagery, the episode will probably mark a turning point in how the media cover politics. Members of the mainstream media are often not comfortable making judgments about whether such language is appropriate, or even dangerous, and therefore avoid the subject--until something like the Giffords shooting occurs, at which point they have a handy reference on which to pin stories. Articles that by their very nature must be speculative--does angry rhetoric lead to violence?--can safely be cast as "news," and reporters feel much more comfortable writing them.

Since the right wing, and especially the Tea Party, have been the epicenter of political anger, they can expect much tougher coverage--even though Loughner had no apparent connection to the Tea Party and had a reading list (Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf [my bad, wrote that pre-coffee]) as far to the left as other of his positions (gold standard, hatred of government) were to the right. And of course it's pointless to try and read too much into a lunatic's politics, anyway. It will be interesting to see how broadly the media polices questionable political speech going forward--will it be limited to gun sights and threats about "Second Amendment remedies"? Or will it also include the right-wing charge that Obama is a foreign-born Muslim?

Whatever the answer, the Giffords shooting seems certain to make the Tea Party path to the presidency more difficult. Until Saturday, it seemed like a good bet that GOP primary voters were going to behave much like they did in the 2010 primaries, punishing moderates and rewarding candidates who made the angriest denunciations of the president, the government, Nancy Pelosi, etc. That's one reason why Newt Gingrich refashioned himself as a Tea Partier and started ranting about Obama's "Kenyan colonial mindset." It's why the whole GOP field was rightfully terrified of Sarah Palin. But the political strategy of going to ever greater extremes in one's use of martial and apocalyptic language seems like the thing that's sure to change now--at least for a while. That could substantially alter the path to the Republican presidential nomination, the jockeying for which is already underway. And sure enough, Palin's InTrade odds of winning the nomination dropped right after the shooting.

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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