Kerry calls partisanship a threat

US immobilized as other nations progress, he says

Senator John F. Kerry spoke in Washington, days after the shootings in Arizona. Senator John F. Kerry spoke in Washington, days after the shootings in Arizona. (Nicholas Kamm/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Mark Arsenault
Globe Staff / January 12, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Corrosive partisanship is threatening to topple America as a leader in innovation, industry, and science, said US Senator John F. Kerry, stepping into the middle of a national debate about excessive partisanship and vitriol in the public square.

Kerry’s remarks, in a speech yesterday at a Washington think tank, come days after Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona was critically wounded and six people were killed in a mass shooting in Tucson.

“Many observers have already reduced this tragedy to simple questions of whether overheated rhetoric is to blame,’’ said Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. The real issue, he said, is the violence that divisive, overly simplistic dialogue does to our democracy every day.

“There’s a bipartisan consensus just waiting to lift our country and our future if senators are willing to sit down and forge it and make it real, if we’re willing to stop talking past each other, to stop substituting sound bites for substance,’’ Kerry said.

Kerry’s 35-minute address at the Center for American Progress was scheduled long before the attack in Arizona. The speech has been among several high-profile calls for civility and bipartisanship in the aftermath of the bloodshed.

House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said Sunday, “This is a time for the House to pull together as an institution — one body, unified in our common purpose of serving the American people and fighting for the freedom and justice guaranteed to all by our Constitution.’’

What motivated the suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, to shoot Giffords is unknown and he has not been linked to any political groups, although Arizona Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik and others have blamed inflammatory political language for creating an atmosphere that could prompt an unstable person to pick up a gun and target a politician.

Despite some partisan finger-pointing over who is to blame for ugly rhetoric, the tragedy presents an opening to repair frayed relationships between congressional Republicans and Democrats, said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.

“If there was ever a teaching moment, this is it,’’ Baker said. “It underscored for [politicians] a sense of vulnerability I don’t believe many of them had thought about. It underscores: What are the consequences of an overheated political environment? What are the consequences of dueling recriminations?’’

The shooting has idled Washington. Boehner put off a vote planned for today on repealing President Obama’s health care overhaul, one of the most divisive issues in America. Over the past several days, both parties have joined in bipartisan condemnation of the violence, expressions of concern for Giffords and the other victims, and discussions over the steps members of Congress can take to stay safer.

The office of Senator Scott Brown, the Massachusetts Republican who also has called for more bipartisanship, did not respond to requests yesterday for comments on Kerry’s appeal.

The more civil tone will be tested in the coming days. The GOP is not expected to step back from its effort to repeal health care; Democrats are considering changing Senate rules to pare the power of the filibuster to obstruct business, a move the Republican minority deeply resents. Kerry hinted yesterday he would back such a change.

The Massachusetts senator said he has been thinking for months about delivering a major speech against excessive partisanship. He timed the remarks for January to bring attention to the problem at the beginning of a new legislative session.

Kerry argued yesterday that partisanship and obstruction for the sake of short-term political gain are preventing the nation from making big decisions and committing to bold ideas, as the nation has done in the past.

“When the Soviets sent the first satellite in history into orbit half a century ago, leaders from both parties rose with a sense of common purpose and resolved that never again would the United States fall behind anyone, anywhere,’’ Kerry said. The United States embarked on a program to land men on the moon, with “no partisan divisions that blocked the way.’’

Democratic and Republican leaders had deep disagreements at the dawn of the space age, said Kerry, “but back then, they shared an even deeper commitment to stand together for the strength and success of our country. . . For them, American exceptionalism wasn’t just a slogan; they knew that America is exceptional not because we say we are, but because we do exceptional things.’’