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Byron York: Obama uses Clinton's playbook to exploit shooting

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In his news conference Wednesday, President Obama argued that because a deranged young man murdered 20 children and six adults in a Connecticut schoolhouse last week, Congress should immediately raise taxes on the nation's highest earners.

No, it didn't make much sense. But Obama is following the example of predecessor Bill Clinton, who in 1995 used the Oklahoma City bombing not only to press security-related measures but also to enhance his political clout in a desperate battle with Republicans. It worked for Clinton; the next few weeks will tell whether it will do the same for Obama.

The president called the news conference to announce he is forming a commission -- a time-honored Washington delaying tactic -- to come up with gun control recommendations in the wake of the Newtown killings. Asked afterward about the "fiscal cliff" talks, the president said: "Goodness, if this past week has done anything, it should just give us some perspective. If there's one thing we should have after this week, it should be a sense of perspective about what's important."

What's important, Obama explained, is for Republicans to recognize that "what the country needs is for us to compromise, get a deficit reduction deal in place; make sure middle-class taxes don't go up; make sure that we're laying the foundations for growth; give certainty to businesses large and small ... "

In all, Obama listed eight goals that Newtown should inspire lawmakers to accomplish. Gun control was No. 6.

It was a move many saw coming. The bodies had barely been removed from Sandy Hook Elementary School before some members of the pundit class began to discuss the political benefits Obama might reap from the shootings.

After Obama's Sunday night speech in Newtown, for example, New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza praised the president's performance and added, on Twitter, "I realize I shouldn't inject politics into all this, but the turning point of the Clinton-Gingrich wars was Clinton's speech after OK City.

"Am I saying that the news of the last few days could impact the fiscal cliff negotiations?" Lizza continued. "Yes, that is exactly what I'm saying."

In another tweet, Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, added to Lizza's remarks: "Pres. went beyond Reagan post Challenger '86 or Clinton post Okla City '95 by making clear he expects Newtown to lead to political change."

It should be noted that the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion was an accident that led mostly to a shake-up at NASA, whereas the Oklahoma City bombing was a horrendous crime that Bill Clinton sought to use as political leverage against Republicans.

In 1995, Clinton was locked in a fight with the House GOP over taxes and several other issues. When the bomb went off in Oklahoma City, Clinton and his political alter ego, Dick Morris, saw opportunity almost immediately.

Morris did extensive polling on the aftereffects of the bombing. In an agenda for an April 27, 1995, meeting, Morris told Clinton there would be both temporary gains from the bombing ("boost in ratings") and permanent gains, which included setting up "Extremist Issue vs. Republicans."

So Clinton and his surrogates worked to tie together the GOP, extremism and the violence in Oklahoma City. It was a big success; years later, both Clinton and his GOP adversaries regarded Oklahoma City as a turning point, one in which Clinton did serious damage to his political opposition.

Barack Obama is not in the same situation. Back in '95, Clinton had his back against the wall as the Republican Revolution gained steam, while Obama is coming off a re-election victory. But the president is in a high-stakes standoff with Republicans. He's under pressure from liberals who want him to hang tough. Perhaps Newtown will help him frame the issues.

Obama's approach repulsed more than a few Republicans. "Craven and offensive" was how one senior Senate aide described it. "Totally inappropriate," said another. Yet another declined to comment because his words would be unprintable. But veterans on Capitol Hill have seen the tactic before.

Is it exploitation for Obama to use the Newtown killings to push for gun control measures? No. Those measures, whether wise or not, are a direct and legitimate reaction to what happened in Connecticut.

But the fiscal cliff, taxes, stimulus and a whole range of issues that have nothing to do with Newtown and everything to do with Obama's political fortunes? That is classic exploitation, Clinton-style -- and now Obama-style.

Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at byork@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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Byron York

Chief Political Correspondent
The Washington Examiner