WASHINGTON— In a town where winning is everything, the annual Congressional Baseball Game for charity has been a throwback — a time when the fighting was purely athletic, and the competition was largely good clean fun.
So that made Thursday’s game — one day after the third-ranking Republican in the House was gunned down at a baseball practice — a strange and potentially transformational moment in time.
Would the tragedy – which saw a man apparently so dug into his personal philosophy that he gunned down those with whom he disagreed — unite a Congress bitterly divided? Or would it prove a turning point?
Lawmakers are hopeful. Analysts have seen these moments of unity play out before, only to dissipate quickly.
“Maybe it’ll put a pause on the heated vitriol,” said Rep. John Shimkus, R–Ill. He rooms with House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, still in critical condition in a D.C. hospital after being shot in the hip Wednesday at a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va.
“Who knows,” said Rep. Tim Ryan, D–Niles. “You hope the potential of this to be a mass execution of members in a very vulnerable place brought it home. You hope. You hope there will be a change.”
At least on Thursday, the scene was optimistic. Fans behind the Democratic dugout and the GOP dugout stood when Scalise’s picture was shown on the big screen. Democrats wore Capitol Police hats for the first few innings, then switched over to caps representing Scalise’s favorite school — Louisiana State University.
Shortly before the game began, both teams huddled on the field to kneel in prayer. House Speaker Paul Ryan, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer opened the game by yelling, “Play ball!” President Donald Trump, meanwhile, appeared on the big screen, offering a message of solidarity, while his daughter Ivanka visited the Democratic dugout at length before the game.
But even as lawmakers and Trump sound soothing notes, others worry that the good feelings will be transitory. They point out not only is Trump among the most polarizing presidents in modern history, but Congress has been wracked by divisions for much of the past three decades.
Even in the aftermath of shattering tragedies such as the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the January 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in her Arizona district, or the 2012 shooting deaths of 20 young children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the brief moments of unity quickly evaporated.
“The understandable bipartisanship to this horrible incident is almost certainly temporary,” said Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and a legal adviser to Republican John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“The reality is in today’s Congress, most members do not know members of the other party well,” Potter said, adding they rarely socialize together at dinner or lunch. “They are there now usually two nights a week, live largely in” their home states “and they spend most of their time either at fund-raisers or in caucus meetings of their own party.”
Columbus-area Rep. Pat Tiberi, R–Genoa Township, is often an exception, socializing with Rep. Bill Pascrell, D–N.J., particularly in bocce ball tournaments, a traditional Italian game. Pascrell, who like Tiberi has an Italian heritage, refers to Tiberi as “Brother Pat.”
And Tiberi, Rep. Steve Stivers, R–Upper Arlington and Rep. Joyce Beatty, D–Jefferson Township, have a close working relationship, planning an event next week, for an example, at the proposed national veterans memorial in Columbus. The trio doesn’t always agree, said Stivers, “but we don’t vilify each other.”
“I think we need to set the right example,” said Stivers. “When people are willing to turn to violence, it’s a problem. I believe this guy was mentally ill, but it starts with anger…we need to bring the temperature down.”
The polarizing climate in Washington has intensified during the past decade as interest groups on the far and left has proliferated in numbers and power, with few restraints on how these groups can spend money against candidates they oppose.
“The pressure from ideological outside groups makes it much harder for even members who want to work on a bipartisan basis to do so,” Potter said. “Those members who try often are threatened by these groups with support for a primary opponent.”
Many also yearn nostalgically for a past that never really existed. The partisan debates in the aftermath of the Communists gaining control of China in 1949 and the Korean War in 1950 were as intense as any today. What has changed from 1952 is the rise of cable TV networks with a distinct partisan edge and the widespread use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, allowing the Virginia shooter, James T. Hodgkinson, to denounce President Donald Trump as a “traitor” on Facebook.
“Is there something about the rhetoric of our culture now that adds to the problem?” asked Peter Fenn, a longtime Democratic consultant in Washington. “My conclusion is yes.”