What is one to think about Republican Rep. Joe Wilson heckling President Obama during the president’s speech to Congress last Wednesday? For myself, I think my seventy six year old, conservative (in the old school way), deeply spiritual Christian mother summed it up best. She said, “It figures he would be from South Carolina”. She also didn’t take kindly to a senator heckling the president in such a way. It offended her as an American. Especially with the heckling coming from a member of the party who whined loudly whenever anyone disagreed with President Bush, deeming it disrespectful to the office of the presidency.
Perhaps that’s where the Republicans are making their biggest mistake. They’ve wrapped themselves in the flag for so long (and got away with so much because of it) that they think the only people who qualify as “real Americans” are the ones who think just like they do. You know, the ones who believe those ridiculous lies that the Far Right keep trotting out, with the assumption that the average American is either too stupid to know better, or at least won’t get do any real fact-checking.
Decorum and disrespect aside, it was, at best, hypocritical for Joe Wilson to shout out “You lie!” – an outburst which violated congressional protocol – when President Obama denied that proposed health care legislation would provide free health coverage for illegal immigrants. The Republicans and their operatives in the Conservative media and the Religious Right have been spreading fear and lies like jam at a jelly festival, and have done so brazenly. Truth means nothing to them. That’s how a member of the House of Representatives can feel led to heckle a president when he knows that he himself is lying by accusing the president of lying. See how quickly things get confused when you try to examine Republican rhetoric?
The truth of the matter is that Joe Wilson was lying when he accused President Obama of the very thing. The health-care bills developed by House Democrats and by the Senate’s health committee explicitly prohibit illegal immigrants from receiving federal subsidies for insurance. End of story.
Wilson apologized to President Obama indirectly through White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, but the damage was done. Republicans have been in full damage control mode ever since. There is little indication, however, that they’re getting any traction with their efforts.
“I’m a big believer that we all make mistakes,” Obama said in acknowledging Wilson’s apology. “I do think that, as I said last night, we have to get to the point where we can have a conversation about big important issues that matter to the American people without vitriol, without name-calling, without the assumption of the worst of other people’s motives.”
Wilson himself has made Republican efforts to smooth things over more difficult by becoming defiant in the face of continued criticism. Instead of apologizing on the House floor, as House GOP leaders have hoped he would do, Wilson instead decided to do a Web video asking for money.
Here’s what Wilson says in the video:
“On these issues, I will not be muzzled. I will speak up, and speak loudly against this risky plan. The supporters of the government takeover of health care and the liberals who want to give health care to illegals are using my opposition as an excuse to distract from the critical questions being raised about this poorly conceived plan. They want to silence anyone who speaks out against it.”
Wilson had little choice. His Democratic opponent, Rob Miller, has raised $500,000 just since Obama’s speech. Wilson defeated Miller in 2008, 54%-46%, which mirrored how John McCain fared, 54%-45%. It was a closer election than Wilson had had in at least the two prior contests. Wilson, first elected in 2001, had been in the 60s in 2006 and 2004. His district, SC-2, stretches from sections around Columbia, down a strip in the Western part of the state to the military area of Beaufort and Hilton Head on the coast. It is also 27% African American. Wilson’s only option is to go on the offensive. He had no choice but to ask for political donations. Joe Wilson has been forced by his outburst into in full survival mode, as members of his own party are turning on him.
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has leaned on Wilson to apologize before the House of Representatives, has been talking to Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) about possible scenarios. Hoyer and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) are considering the introduction of a censure resolution against Wilson after his adamant refusal to offer a mea culpa in the well of the House — despite Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s refusal to consider the idea on Thursday. Though Boehner himself pressured Wilson, his aides believe it’s highly unlikely any Republicans would back a censure resolution.
Earlier in the day, House speaker Nancy Pelosi said she thought Wilson’s apology to Obama was sufficient, but a censure push has been growing all day, with the Progressive Change Campaign collecting 30,000 signatures in an online censure petition and committing $10,000 to force the issue.
“I’m on to health care reform,” Pelosi told reporters at her weekly news conference. “I’m not going to discuss Joe Wilson. … I think his action spoke for itself. He has apologized. He will figure out what is appropriate for him to do.”
Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) was not as forgiving, and was on the Bill Press radio show early Thursday pushing the censure idea.
“I’m not saying the guy should be kicked out of the House. … But there ought to be some rebuke, reprimand, censure — something that will discourage that kind of conduct in the future,” Specter said. “If you do that to the president, it’s open season.”
Earlier on his show, Press spoke with Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who said Wilson should “man up” and apologize directly to Obama — or that Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) should “mea culpa” the White House on his behalf.
Personally, I think the Democrats should back off. The harder they push, the more likely the Republicans are to gather around Joe Wilson and whine about persecution. Besides, while it may be true that no Democrat ever stood up in either branch of Congress and shouted a direct insult to President Bush, they were eager to heckle him with “Boos” during some of his speeches there. It won’t be long before the Conservative media is crowing loudly about that fact, banking upon the fact that most Americans won’t be able to understand why an indirect “Boo” is less of an offense than a direct and personal accusation.
However, there’s little that can be done to put the genie back into the bottle. The continued outcry over Wilson’s disrespect has a lot to do with the fact that congressional Republicans have used the health care debate to vent a deeper, uglier contempt for Obama that verges on the personal. They’ve done little to discourage the party’s fringes from questioning Obama’s legitimacy to serve, through the birther movement; fitness to govern, through the death panel canard — and even the territorial integrity of the U.S. under a Democratic president, through Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s flirtation with secession. All of this anger may stoke the base at town halls — and goose Glenn Beck — but it just looks ugly on the national stage.
By disrespecting a sitting American president, Joe Wilson disrespected the Congress of the United States, as well as his constituents in South Carolina. It’s not an offense that many Americans are willing to forgive, because the outburst embodied everything that’s wrong with our political landscape today. Joe Wilson became, for a news cycle, the angry, accusatory face of the Republican party. To make things worse, when you look closer at Wilson’s accusation, you quickly discover that it was, in fact, Joe Wilson who was lying before Congress, and not President Obama. Wilson’s outburst was just one more event that serves to erode to credibility of the Republican party in the eyes of the American people.