The late comedian George Gobel had a rueful line that neatly described the painful realization of being out-of-place, out-of-step, or just plain on the wrong side history precisely when history is being made: "I feel like the whole world's a tuxedo, and I'm a pair of brown shoes!" More than a few political leaders and pundits had inklings of that feeling in the days following the recent election, but those first twinges are nothing compared with the overwhelming change in national mood after Newtown's Black Friday.
When 20 first-graders and six of their teachers are gunned down days before Christmas by a disturbed individual with unfettered access to an assault rifle and enough ammunition to have literally killed the whole school -- had one hidden person not called 911, the days of unfettered political obedience to the NRA are numbered. Just look at the data on the rash of gun purchases in the days immediately after this massacre: Those who have relied on the NRA to rule the roost know they can't count on it anymore and want to shop now before the music stops.
They see a reelected President Obama asserting that enough is enough -- having a moment similar to President Kennedy's historic conversion to civil rights champion as he sensed the shift in national mood when Bull Conner and his ilk became nightly horror shows on Huntley-Brinkley and Walter Cronkite. And the country followed (presidents matter); and he brought with him a son of the South, Lyndon Johnson. Just this past Monday, we heard the NRA member Joe Manchin, Senator from West Virginia, open the door to dialogue with rural America about how we can have reasonable regulation of gun and ammo access without violating the Second Amendment. And Senator Schumer of New York tells his fellow liberals they have to start their dialogue by accepting the reality of the constitutional right to bear arms.
Is compromise no longer a dirty word politically? Maybe so. The president himself often referred to the hyper-partisan "fever" that gripped the body politic beginning in the poisonous debate over "public options" and phantom "death panels" under what became Obamacare -- and this in turn leading to the triumph of "take-no-prisoners" talk-radio politics with the Tea Party in 2010, the debt ceiling debacle in 2011, and the "take-it-to-the election" 2012 filibusters and gridlock that reduced Congress to fulminating impotence.
The election did not cure this fever as Obama hoped, but merely stabilized it. But an act of crazed killing appears to have broken the fever at last, at least for a while, and created a window to get us off the precipice and get common sense things done for the common good. Shame on us for needing such tragedy to come to our senses, but seize the opportunity nevertheless.
Look not only at the new openness to discuss assault weapons again, along with ammunition clip restrictions, gun-purchase waiting periods for checking national data-bases, and enhanced intervention options for treating psychologically-disturbed individuals, on the one hand, and considerations of improved physical security and even police patrols to protect our primary and secondary schools just as we do in our colleges. Taboos are breaking down from the center out. Extreme positions on both sides of the political spectrum are being marginalized by public opinion and even by the cable media choking on its own bias toward promoting "controversy." (When even Rupert Murdoch tweets out against assault weapons, you know something big is happening.)
It's no coincidence and not merely a shortening calendar that led both Speaker Boehner and President Obama to put serious "offers-in-compromise" on the table in their fiscal cliff negotiations in the days immediately following the tragedy in Newtown. Both of these successful politicians understand that Americans see Newtown as Anytown USA, and will not stand for continued brinksmanship from political leaders, or their followers, in the wake of such an aching, manmade tragedy. This disaster was not an act of vicious nature like Katrina or Sandy; unlike global warming, there is not even a remotely debatable case as to whether the Newtown murders were caused by human action. In these circumstances, patience wears thin for officials who say "the voters made me do it." We are beginning to want to try some solutions instead of the constant fights cable TV wants to cover. (While CNBC asks Washington to "Rise Above" the fights, it continues to give its own hyper-partisans like Rick Santelli and Gary Kaminsky plenty of airtime to carry on the battles.)
Enough is enough, it seems, in more ways than one. There is now a real chance that the fiscal cliff can be avoided and actual tax and immigration reform can be addressed; and that a national debate can start on sensible steps to diminish the prevalence violence in our culture. This blogger is off for the holidays to Australia -- a country that banned assault weapons and enacted other steps to reduce the personal "arms race" over a decade ago after a mass killing, and has not experienced even one such event since. Don't let anyone tell you it can't work.