Republicans and Democrats extract different lessons from the San Bernardino massacre, with the former seeing the need for tighter anti-terrorism policies and the latter seeing the need for tighter gun-control laws.
WASHINGTON — On the campaign trail, in the White House and on Twitter, it was as if politicians were responding to completely different events.
After the shooting rampage in San Bernardino, Calif., left at least 14 people dead, Democrats demanded a tightening of the country’s gun laws, laying blame on a culture that allows even people who are not permitted to board airplanes to buy guns with ease. Republicans talked of a separate policy failure, drawing on news reports that the massacre may have been spurred by religious extremists to warn that the country is under attack and ill-equipped to deal with it.
The rampage put presidential candidates in a quandary on a day almost all were holding public events and found themselves under pressure to address the violence in California, even as the facts remained murky. And even though the guns used in the attack were purchased legally.
As more details about the attackers were made public, GOP candidates — nearly all of whom spoke at a Washington forum hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition — issued increasingly harsh attacks on what they said was the Obama administration’s unwillingness to come to terms with the true threat posed by Muslim extremists.
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The “horrific murder underscores that we are at a time of war, whether or not the current administration realizes it,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said, conceding the motives in the attack were not yet fully clear.
Like others, he was adamant that the Obama administration has held back in the name of political correctness. “We need a president who will call the enemy by its name: radical Islamic terrorism,” he said. “There’s a power of speaking the truth.”
Obama administration officials avoid terms such as “Islamic extremism” and “Muslim terrorists” to keep from alienating the world’s billion or so Muslims, including the leaders of crucial allies in the Middle East.
Some Republicans passed on mentioning the bloodbath altogether. Ben Carson stuck to remarks that never touched on San Bernardino. Jeb Bush opened his hawkish speech with a moment of silence for the victims but never returned to the issue.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, on the other hand, built much of his message to the Jewish group around the Wednesday attack.
“From the time I began to watch the events unfold last night, I (was) convinced that it was a terrorist attack,” he said. “The president continues to wring his hands and say, ‘We’ll see.’ … But those folks dressed in tactical gear with semi-automatic weapons came there to do something.”
He warned that the event should be a wake-up call, but for stepped-up national defense and intelligence. He, like others who spoke, made no mention of gun-control laws. “If a center for the developmentally disabled in San Bernardino, Calif., can be a target for a terrorist attack, then every place in America is a target for a terrorist attack,” Christie said. “We need to come to grips with the idea that we are in the midst of the next world war.”
As the candidates attacked Obama at an auditorium a few blocks from the White House, the president called reporters to the Oval Office after his briefing from FBI Director James Comey. He emphasized the need to “get the facts” before making a judgment about the case. “At this stage, we do not yet know why this terrible event occurred,” Obama said Thursday morning.
But, he added, “right now, it’s just too easy” for people who are determined to kill others to “get access to weapons.”
On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, Republicans blocked several efforts by Democrats to add gun-control provisions to a budget measure.
In one of a series of near-party-line procedural votes, the Senate, by a 54-45 vote, blocked a proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California that would have stopped people on the government’s anti-terrorist “no fly” list from buying guns. Republican opponents said the list includes too many errors to be used for preventing gun sales. By 50-48, the chamber also blocked a measure by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., to tighten the background-check system.
All Republicans voted to block the Feinstein measure except for Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who faces a difficult re-election campaign next year in a heavily Democratic state.
Hillary Clinton doubled down on her campaign for gun control. “We cannot go on with losing 90 people a day to gun violence,” Clinton wrote on Twitter. “We need to take action now.”
On the campaign trail in New Hampshire, she also said it was critical to lead the world in working to prevent “the kind of attacks we’ve been seeing.”
By focusing even, in part, on gun control, Clinton was left vulnerable to GOP attacks that she was downplaying the fight against terrorism.
“Hillary Clinton was tweeting about gun control while we learned radical Islamic terrorists have been building pipe bombs,” said Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief executive and GOP candidate.
But it was Donald Trump who ramped up the rhetoric further than all the others. As his remarks turned to San Bernardino, Trump said Obama’s refusal to use the terms “radical Islamic terrorism” indicates that “there is something going on with him that we don’t know about.” The ominous comment echoed Trump’s history of questioning Obama’s birthplace and airing of false claims that the president practices Islam.