ANALYSIS: The quieting of negative rhetoric will not last, but may be a small check on future decisions.
The tragedy in Colorado suddenly altered the trajectory of the presidential campaign. In the hours after the shooting, President Obama and Mitt Romney eloquently gave voice to the collective grief and shock felt across the country. Their campaign teams stood down, at least temporarily.
What the president and the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and their teams said and did Friday was appropriate. Beyond the measured rhetoric of the two leaders, both campaigns pulled down all their ads in Colorado.
Sadly, this country has been through enough such episodes that there is now something of a playbook for politicians in how to respond. That's not to suggest that the words that came from the president and his challenger were anything but heartfelt. The two spoke as political leaders at a time the country looks for those in power (or aspiring to it) to help provide comfort and context to what is frightening and irrational.
But they also spoke as who they are, as parents, and in Romney's case, as a grandparent. Each, no doubt, could imagine the horror of losing a child or grandchild in the movie theater in Aurora, Colo.
"Michelle and I will be fortunate enough to hug our girls a little tighter tonight, and I'm sure you will do the same with your children," Obama said in Florida.
"Each of us will hold our kids a little closer," Romney said in New Hampshire.
The Colorado massacre came at a moment when the presidential campaign had become white-hot in its intensity and its negativity -- at greater volume than the country has ever witnessed this far ahead of the election. The movie theater rampage forced a sudden and necessary change in plans. Campaigns try to construct narratives to shape reality and perceptions. The shooting was a shocking dose of reality that put all else in perspective.
A moment of pause
The hiatus in the political wars will be temporary, by necessity. The country faces a very large decision in November, and both campaigns deserve the opportunity to make their cases as vigorously as they can. Negative ads will not disappear; nor will the enormous fundraising efforts required to fund those ads cease.
But at this moment of pause, it would be useful to recall the president's words at the time of another such tragedy not so long ago. It was at the beginning of this presidential cycle, in January 2011, after the shooting in Tucson that killed six people and wounded 13, including then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who has since resigned her seat while concentrating on her recovery.
Obama, in the role Americans now ask their presidents to play, spoke at the memorial service after the shooting.
At the time, the country in its shock was convulsed by a debate over whether political rhetoric and tactics had somehow encouraged the shooter. Had the deep partisanship and polarization helped create a climate that somehow invited violence? It was a time not only of grieving but also of finger-pointing and recrimination.
The circumstances of the shootings in Tucson and Aurora may be quite different. No one can explain why it happened -- again. No one can assure it won't happen again.
Unlike Tucson, no one has ascribed a political motive behind what happened in Aurora Friday. One early report on ABC News incorrectly linked the alleged shooter to a Tea Party group. The report was quickly corrected, but it set off angry reactions among conservative bloggers and commentators.
So while the circumstances may be different, what Obama said that night in Tucson still bears repeating: "If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate -- as it should -- let's make sure it's worthy of those we have lost. Let's make sure it's not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away in the next news cycle."
Something else he said that night is noteworthy. He spoke of Christina-Taylor Green, who at 9 was the youngest of the victims. She was just learning about government and democracy and public service.
'Live up to her expectations'
Obama said she saw this world through eyes "undimmed by the cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted." He said: "I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it."
His address drew praise across the political spectrum as one of the finest of his presidency. And, seemingly, it was quickly forgotten. The two parties plunged back into an even harsher period of partisan rancor over the country's fiscal problems. That gave way to the current campaign in which each side is prepared to blame the other for causing the negativity that has marked the opening phase of the general election.
The Tucson speech was meant for the time and place it was delivered. But do the president and his challenger have any responsibility to try to make the next three and a half months something other than "the usual plane of politics" that Obama decried in Tucson? Changing the tone of the debate won't stop future acts of senseless violence by deranged individuals. But the admonition to elevate the political discourse might at least provide some small check about partisan decisions. What Obama said in Tucson is good advice at this latest moment of tragedy and grief for the country.