Washington's post-shooting ritual: angry words and political polarization

president obama san bernardino shooting statement oval office sot_00002908
president obama san bernardino shooting statement oval office sot_00002908

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Story highlights

  • Democrats and Republicans remain entrenched on gun control
  • Republicans seek to frame shooting as act of terrorism

Washington (CNN)America's political polarization is so deep that Republicans and Democrats can't even agree on what to talk about in the aftermath of the shooting in San Bernardino, California, that left 14 dead.

Instead, both sides on Thursday sought to frame the tragedy to reflect their own political ends on the thorny issues of guns and terrorism, which are key motivating issues for their most committed voters.
At the White House, President Barack Obama again faced the cameras to make another pitch for curbs on firearms -- remarks similar to those he's delivered after mass shootings this year in South Carolina, Oregon and now San Bernardino.
    "It is going to be important for all of us, including our legislatures, to see what we can do to make sure that when individuals decide they want to do somebody harm, we are making it a little harder for them to do it," he said. "Because, right now, it's just too easy."
    A few blocks away, every Republican presidential candidate gathered to speak to a group of conservative Jewish voters. But on the issue of guns, they might as well have been worlds apart, seeking to frame the violence in California as an example of potential terrorism and not a reason to open yet another debate over the Second Amendment.
    "All of us are deeply concerned that this is yet another manifestation of terrorism, radical Islamic terrorism here at home," said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. "This horrific murder underscores that we are in a time of war."
    He went on: "Whether or not the current administration realizes it or is willing to acknowledge it, our enemies are at war with us. And I believe our nation needs a wartime president to defend it."
    GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump referred to the attack as "probably" related to radical Islamic terrorism and used it to advance his critique of Obama.
    "We have a president that refuses to use the term," Trump said. "He refuses to say it -- I'll tell you there is something going on with him that we don't know about."

    Disconnect on display

    The disconnect does not just reflect the inertia and deep polarization on Second Amendment rights that has prevented the adoption of even modest firearms measures despite a string of mass shootings. It also demonstrates the way GOP candidates are seizing on new fears about terrorism to hammer the Obama legacy and present themselves as tough potential commanders-in-chief. The issue also plays into the anti-government fervor that is animating the GOP race.
    There was no sign of any convergence over the political aisle in the wake of the attack, underscoring the nation's painful split between left and right.
    The speed at which politicians took on the issue was especially notable because authorities in Washington and California have yet to establish exactly what motivated the attackers. Obama said there could have been a mix of motives, including terrorism or work place violence.
    Law enforcement sources told CNN it appeared Syed Rizwan Farook, who along with his wife Tashfeen Malik carried out the shooting, may have been radicalized and had "soft connections" with more than one subject of international terrorism investigations.
    But much about the rest of the attack remained unclear Thursday.
    Republicans, however, did not wait for confirmation of a terrorism link and don't need a second chance to mete out tough rhetoric and chide Obama's anti-terrorism legacy.
    At one point, Trump even said that his poll numbers rise whenever there's a tragedy because Americans feel he would protect them.
    And New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who is brandishing his muscular credentials as a former prosecutor to try to rescue his trailing campaign, left even less room for nuance than Cruz.
    "I am convinced that was a terrorist attack," he said. "We need to come to grips with the idea that we are in the midst of the next world war."

    A more delicate line

    Another top GOP presidential candidate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, trod a more delicate line than Trump and Cruz. Speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition, his goal was apparently to both appease base voters suspicious that the California massacre was indeed terrorism, but also to leave the impression he'd be a more temperate commander-in-chief than his rivals.
    "We don't know all of the facts yet but we certainly have learned some facts that are concerning and weighing on our minds in the aftermath of what we see happening in the world," Rubio said.
    Graham, struggling in the polls despite being the most hawkish GOP candidate, responded to the attack in California by suggesting that Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric was playing into the hands of ISIS.
    "The one thing I can tell you is that what Mr. Trump's saying about how to handle this war is empowering the enemy," Graham said, referring to the billionaire's recent assertion that the U.S. should "go after" the families of terrorists.
    "ISIL loves Donald Trump because he is giving them an opportunity to bring people their way," Graham told reporters.
    But it was not only Republicans seeking a political opening.
    Well before the details of the Bernardino assault were fully known, Democrats were already pushing for more gun control, in a manner likely to further polarize debate over the issue between left and right.
    "Horrifying news out of #SanBernardino," wrote O'Malley, in a tweet on Wednesday afternoon. "Enough is enough: it's time to stand up to the @NRA and enact meaningful gun safety laws."
    Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton also was quick to make a call for tighter gun control laws, an issue which her campaign helps her with liberal grass-roots voters over the more liberal candidate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
    "I refuse to accept this as normal. We must take action to stop gun violence now. -H," a personally signed Tweet by the candidate read on Wednesday.

    Difficult politics for Clinton

    But the shooting presents Clinton with a difficult political proposition.
    On the one hand, she is using the push for gun control to ally herself with the liberal grass-roots of her party. On the other, with a general election in mind, she has needs to show she is tough on terrorism -- if that is what the San Bernardino attack turns out to be.
    And Clinton is also vulnerable to any accusations that Obama's wider anti-terrorism and foreign policies have failed to quell the spread of extremism, since she is his former secretary of state and a Democrat hoping to succeed him.
    Speaking on Thursday at the Women's Economic Summit in New Hampshire, Clinton said to applause that "the vast majority of Muslim Americans are just as concerned and heartbroken about this as anyone else."
    She also urged Congress to "overcome the intimidation of the gun lobby to make sure that ... someone on the terrorist watch list can't buy weapons. If you're too dangerous to fly in America, you are too dangerous to buy a gun in America."