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Gabrielle Giffords, you will be missed

Arnav Dutt | Monday, January 23, 2012

This week, Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona will announce one of the most unfortunate special elections in the history of American politics. The winner will fill the soon-to-be-vacant seat that currently belongs to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who announced her imminent resignation on Sunday.

I say unfortunate because we can only dream of a better way of filling the shoes such an icon of bipartisan cooperation, civic duty and centrism than what could wind up being a hotly-contested battle for a swing district.

In the eulogy he delivered in Tucson four days after the Jan. 8 shooting, President Obama urged the nation to move past bitter partisanship. “If this tragedy prompts reflection and debate, as it should, let’s make sure it’s worthy of those we have lost,” he said of the six people that were killed in the shooting, and of the 13 (including Giffords) who were injured. “Let’s make sure it’s not on the usual plane of politics and point scoring and pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle.”

For a short while, 2011 looked to be a year of détente in Washington, best exemplified by the new seating arrangement in the House chamber during Obama’s Jan. 25 State of the Union address. At the behest of Colorado Senator Mark Udall, Democrats and Republicans broke with tradition and sat interspersed with one another.

But it should go without saying that that sentiment hardly captured the spirit of the year that followed. There was the embarrassing budget crisis on the Hill, during which the only thing that was ever guaranteed to pass was time. The furiously-partisan Tea Party and Occupy movements captured the nation’s attention, arguably serving to exacerbate the situation. And the stresses of divided government and the beginning of an election year have been apparent not only in the rhetoric of politicians, but increasingly in our day-to-day conversations. 2011 was, more than most, a year of “politics and point scoring and pettiness.”

(Since this is meant to be a column in honor of Giffords, I feel I ought to remind readers of her role in the debt crisis. On Aug. 1, Giffords returned to the House for the first time since the assassination attempt to cast her vote in favor of extending the deadline. “I had to be here for this vote,” she explained. “I could not take the chance that my absence could crash our economy.”)

Our Congress is almost too badly split apart along party lines to perform its basic functions. I am afraid that Giffords’ resignation will not cause Congress to stop and examine itself the way it did after the Tucson tragedy. On the contrary, I suspect her resignation will provide yet another occasion for a highly-publicized clash between the two parties.

Isn’t there a better way to fill a congresswoman’s seat after an attempt is made on her life? A two-term incumbent, Giffords was elected to her office by a majority (albeit a small majority), most likely because of her ideology and platforms. Presumably, her office could have nominated a substitute who could have filled in for Giffords until November. A crazed assassin’s bullet shouldn’t have the power to prompt an election, or to invalidate the votes that put Giffords in office in the first place.

It isn’t as if Giffords’s supporters knew she was going to fall victim to a senseless, brutal assassination attempt when they elected her. There was no reason to doubt the 41-year-old Gifford’s health would be compromised in this way. The voters that put her in office expected their congresswoman to keep doing her job as well as she had been doing it. But a deranged man with a gun had other plans.

When you consider how far to the right Jesse Kelly (the Tea Party Republican candidate who narrowly lost to her in 2010) falls on the political spectrum, you will get an idea of how bad future elections for her seat could look.

And so, I would like to end this column on a hopeful note. To begin with, I hope that whoever is elected to fill Gabrielle Giffords’ seat in the House does as admirable a job as she has done during her tenure. I hope that person is elected in a clean, respectful campaign. I hope Giffords will continue to recover from her injuries. I hope she will someday return to politics, as she promised in her video announcement on Sunday. I hope that, as a country, we take this year as a second chance — as another opportunity to make the changes that President Obama called for in the wake of last January’s tragedy. And finally, I hope I am not hoping for too much.

Arnav Dutt is a junior. He can be reached at adutt1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.