The ire on both sides makes it difficult to compromise, said Robert J. Dold, a former GOP House member who broke ranks with his party to call for stricter gun control measures after the Orlando, Florida, nightclub shooting last year.
"I'm a little wary to criticize people for the language they use, as long as it's sincere," he said. The Illinois Republican added that he had struggled with his own response after mass shootings while he was in office, which also included the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
In that case, Dold said, he thought of his three school-age children and wondered how the parents of the dead could possibly go on with their lives. He went on the House floor to say thoughts and prayers were not enough, and that both sides had to work together on a solution, he said.
"These are significant tragedies that impact our nation, so yes, you do grapple with what to say. And anyone who thinks that it is done off the cuff, with little or no regard, I think is incorrect," he said.
Not everyone was prepared to let lawmakers who use rote language off easy.
"The idea that a politician can say, 'thoughts and prayers,' and do nothing is not only a weak position, it's a dereliction of their duty," said Will Fischer, director of government relations at VoteVets.org, a liberal-leaning veterans' political group that has called for gun control measures. "In the military, when a mission fails, it's not like military leaders say, 'thoughts and prayers,' and then walk away. You learn from what happens. You make changes so the situation doesn't happen again."
Rita Kirk, a professor of communication studies and the director of the Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility at Southern Methodist University, said it has become so commonplace for politicians to talk about sending thoughts and prayers that the phrase has become meaningless.
"It means that now you feel your obligation to me is over, it's not in my power to do something for you, it's in the hands of a greater power," she said. "It's sort of like, 'Good luck.'"
She said it would be more authentic for lawmakers to try to convey compassion for the myriad and overwhelming feelings that victims experience and to follow up with some kind of action.
"If you are not going to take the time to think about it, and try to come up with a heartfelt message, just keep your mouth shut," she said.
Todd, the GOP strategist, didn't see it that way. He said it's the criticism that's political, not the expressions of sympathy.
"That's most people's reaction. When they hear someone is in a tough situation, they say, 'I will pray for you,'" he said. "This is a human reaction, not a political reaction."
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