Just days after the Arizona tragedy, the Phoenix sat down with Senator Jack Reed for a Q+A about the shooting, the Tea Party, and some troubling news out of Pakistan. We also asked Reed, who is forever tamping down speculation that he will be the next Secretary of Defense, to handicap the field of possible successors to Robert Gates. The interview is edited and condensed.

DO YOU THINK IT'S FAIR TO SUGGEST THAT THE RHETORIC OF SARAH PALIN AND THE TEA PARTY MIGHT HAVE CREATED AN ATMOSPHERE THAT LED TO THE ARIZONA SHOOTINGS? I think it's fair to say that this happened in the context of increasingly vitriolic and personalized discourse — not from one source, but many sources. In that context, someone who seems to be as impressionable or, perhaps, as delusional as this individual felt more empowered.

DO YOU SEE SPEAKER BOEHNER AND OTHER REPUBLICAN LEADERS USING THIS AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO REIN IN THE NEW CLASS OF TEA PARTY CONGRESSMEN? I hope they do. I think they're very conscious of the Gingrich tenure. And they understand, in some respects better than Gingrich, that this is a double-edged sword — this ideological passion.

DO YOU BELIEVE THE TEA PARTY WILL EVAPORATE WHEN THE ECONOMY IMPROVES? I think there's been a consistent current in American political history of this type of activity. It ebbs and flows — and one of the major moderators is the economy. One of the major factors that I think is overlooked, that [helps explain] the traction they've got recently, is the fact that over the last 20 years, the incomes of middle-income Americans have been stagnant. They were compensating by using their houses for equity loans to buy things and to keep up their standard of living. And then when the housing crisis came, there was the realization that middle-income people were not getting ahead.

WHO DO YOU THINK IS THE MOST FORMIDABLE OF THE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES IN THE REPUBLICAN FIELD — PALIN, ROMNEY, PAWLENTY, HUCKABEE, BARBOUR? I think it's too early, much too early to speculate about that. In 2007, I don't think Barack Obama was seen as the most formidable candidate.

IF YOU HAD TO WAGER ON A SPECIFIC PERSON, WHO DO YOU THINK WILL SUCCEED ROBERT GATES AS THE NEXT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE? My sense is, first, that Secretary Gates will probably serve through the summer. This review in July of Afghanistan policy is critical [President Obama has set July as the start of the American drawdown of troops] and he's a very conscientious individual. He's going to see that one through. Then, when he reaches that point — you're really talking about 18 months until the end of the president's first term. And then he's also, I think, enough of a patriot — he's also enough of a pragmatist — to recognize, whoever is nominated could set off, for any number of reasons, a long confirmation fight, so that at a critical juncture you don't have continuity. Admiral Mullen is due to retire this summer also — he's the chairman of the joint chiefs [adding to continuity concerns].

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