In The Wake Of Oklahoma City, One Nation More Indivisible

Call it a hopeful consequence of the horror in Oklahoma City. The explosion that killed and maimed hundreds in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building could actually have a cooling effect on the white-hot rhetoric that has engulfed U.S. political life. Indeed, the tragedy is shaping up as a rarity: an act of violence that draws people together.

Not since the gulf war has an event instilled Americans with such a sense of communal identity. And any rush toward the political center provides President Clinton with an opportunity to reassert leadership over a more sober public dialogue about the future. "The country wants something other than the hard Right and the discredited Left," says Al From, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "This bombing will reinforce that."

ON THE DEFENSIVE. That's a switch. Since last fall, congressional Republicans have been setting the agenda with emotional anti-government appeals and issues that polarize voters--curbs in poverty programs, challenges to affirmative action, calls for immigration controls, and an overhaul of welfare.

Now, the bombing has thrown right-wing radio talk-show hosts and their conservative allies in Congress on the defensive. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was stunned by suggestions that the GOP's government-bashing may have fanned the flames of extremists like those who are believed to have attacked the federal building. And hard-edge GOP Presidential aspirants such as Representative Robert K. Dornan of California and Senator Phil Gramm of Texas may feel pressure to tone down their strident attacks on government. "The core of the electorate has decided this isn't the way the nation should go," says former Democratic Presidential contender Paul E. Tsongas.

That shift is working to Clinton's advantage. Though the President has been a polarizing figure himself, his recent deft performance as national healer has boosted his popularity. For the first time in 11 months, Clinton's approval ratings have topped 50%--reaching 52%, according to an Apr. 21-23 USA Today/CNN poll. "Clinton has been touching on the moral high notes in a powerful way," explains Rutgers University political scientist Benjamin R. Barber. "He's acting as executive pastor to the American flock in a time of crisis."

Another possible beneficiary: GOP moderates, who now can cool the government-is-the-problem rhetoric of the party's populist and religious right wings. Figures one Clintonite: "Some of the most conservative Republican members of the House, especially the freshmen class, could be marginalized, opening up space for GOP moderates calling for civility and lowered voices."

Still, many Republicans believe public revulsion with anti-government terrorism won't alter voters' broad support for lower taxes, less spending, and fewer federal regulations. "It may change the tone of the political debate, but not the substance," says Republican strategist William Kristol. "The Republicans will bend over backward to be civil, but aside from a repeal of the assault-weapon ban, I don't see any backing off."

Perhaps. But U.S. acts of terrorism, rare as they are, can shake up political dynamics. Bombings by student radicals helped galvanize the electorate behind Richard M. Nixon's 1972 reelection landslide. And recent violence at abortion clinics has dampened moves to ban abortion. So while it's a liberal fantasy to think that the tragedy in Oklahoma City will stop the Republican juggernaut, for the moment at least, the grisly bombing has succeeded in doing something that neither Clinton nor the GOP has done--tone down the rhetoric.

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