The initial reaction to the president’s address to Congress on healthcare reform was interesting – people seemed to agree he made his case well, and forcefully, and the initial polling seemed to indicate he changed some minds, and he seemed a bit more combative, without any overt name-calling or silliness, and of course he was heckled:
THE PRESIDENT: There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false. The reforms – the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.
REP JOE WILSON: You lie! (Boos.)
THE PRESIDENT: It’s not true. And one more misunderstanding I want to clear up – under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place. (Applause.)
What wouldn’t go away was the reaction to those words from Wilson, a congressman from South Carolina. As they say out here in Hollywood, some stories have legs. Of course MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann got on his high horse and offered one of those really irritating over-the-top special comments – yeah, Joe, you apologized for being rude, but maybe you should have apologized for being wrong. And of course, if you consult PoliFact’s Truth-o-Meter – folks with no axe to grind one way or the other – Wilson was wrong. All versions of all provisions of all bills explicitly exclude illegal immigrants from any public benefits of any kind in any way. It’s there in black and white. The day after this confrontation CNN and the others were pointing out that Wilson was wrong, not that being right would justify him being a jerk, and the first in our history to shout out from the floor at a Joint Session that the president was a liar. The rest of the Republicans were at their Blackberries, texting away, and one just walked out on Obama.
It was calculated and coordinated rudeness and contempt – with Wilson being the most overt. And his party punished him for taking it one step too far – they made him apologize to the White House. You need to know exactly where that line is, and never cross it. You can be rude, but be smart about it.
Obama graciously accepted the apology – everyone makes mistakes – and came off looking cool and magnanimous, while Wilson was the Neanderthal. And you could see the Republicans’ thought here – make this about Wilson and not them, and hope everyone forgets it all.
Of course there was the damage control – Obama drove Wilson to this by being so very partisan and everything, and not conceding the Republicans were right to try and stop this reform madness. And there is Brendan Nyhan bending over backwards to construct a new interpretation of the situation where Wilson is merely being “highly misleading” rather than telling any sort of outright falsehood:
Obama is clearly referring to the false claim that health care reform would provide free health insurance to illegal immigrants. Many people may interpret Wilson’s outburst as a defense of this claim (it’s impossible to know what he was thinking). However, as Rob correctly points out, Obama’s reforms would apply to everyone – including illegal immigrants – who purchases coverage through health insurance exchanges, including from a proposed government insurance program known as the public option. If you define the public option as insuring someone and describe it as a reform, then Obama’s statement could be seen as misleading and Wilson’s point could be seen as more supportable.
Really? Matthew Yglesias doesn’t think so:
In other words, though the bills would prevent undocumented immigrants from receiving any taxpayer assistance in purchasing health insurance, the proposals on the table don’t do anything special to prevent an undocumented immigrant from buying health insurance with his own money. To characterize this as “insuring illegal immigrants” strikes me as about on a par with claiming that Obama’s health care plans give ibuprofen to illegal immigrants. After all, nothing in the bill stops illegal immigrants from buying ibuprofen in a store! And the very same FDA regulations that assure citizens and legal residents and tourists of the safety of ibuprofen will also benefit illegal immigrants.
Yeah, well, this is pretty absurd, but the Republicans, while they are willing to concede the rudeness, do not seem willing to concede the point. See McCain’s former spokesman, a protégé of William Kristol, Michael Goldfarb:
Joe Wilson offered the most succinct and effective Republican response to Obamacare since Sarah Palin attacked Obama’s “death panels” — and, like Sarah, he did it in just two words: “You lie.”
And there is the de facto leader of the Republican Party, Rush Limbaugh:
So Wilson told the truth, Obama was lying, and now we’re harping all over Wilson. Wilson apologized quickly. And Obama said, “Yeah, okay. I accept it. You know, that’s nice.” How fast did Obama apologize to the police officer in Cambridge? I don’t think he has yet, has he?
Something else is going on here. See Bruce Bartlett:
No doubt, right wing publishers like Regnery and Crown will be beating down Wilson’s door today to sign a book deal that will put him at the top of the New York Times bestseller list along with drivel from the likes of Michelle Malkin, who has probably already started writing her biography of Wilson, titled, “The Man Who Spoke the Truth.” By the end of the day a Wilson for President web site will be fully functioning if it isn’t already. Watch for the announcement on Glenn Beck’s show this afternoon.
First Lady Michelle Obama – seated behind and above Wilson – seemed to mouth a drawn-out “damn” at the scene unfolding before her.
That was the intention. And now they’re making t-shirts and everything. “I’m with Joe Wilson – America’s Congressman!”
And at Politico, Andie Coller considers whether what we have here is just a party of cranks:
Joe Wilson’s outburst Wednesday night earned more than a personal rebuke from the president and a dagger-eyed gasp from the speaker of the House; it drew winces from Republicans worried that their party is becoming known less for the power of its ideals and more for the pettiness of its vitriol.
“Neither party has an exclusive on whack jobs,” says Republican media consultant Mark McKinnon. “Unfortunately, right now the Democrats generally get defined by President Obama, and Republicans, who have no clear leadership, get defined by crackpots – and then they begin to define the Republican Party in the mind of the general public.”
Coller says all you have to do is turn on the television:
Here’s Orly Taitz, insisting that the commander in chief was born in Kenya. There’s a flock of town hall protesters, waving photos of the president in a Hitler moustache. Former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin warns darkly that Obama is planning “death panels” for senior citizens. Georgia Rep. Paul Broun equates the president’s plans with “Nazi” policies. Ohio Rep. Jean Schmidt – last heard calling John Murtha a “coward” – tells a Birther: “I agree with you, but the courts don’t.”
And then, in the midst of all the catcalls, hand-held signs and “I’m not listening” BlackBerrying, Wilson interrupts Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress by shouting, “You lie!”
The Republicans know this is no good – Coller cites a former Republican congressman – “The president was helped more by the optics of House Republicans than by his own speech. It’s not likely to do any long-term damage, but they need to be very careful how they oppose this president.” But he also cites a current high-level Republican who doesn’t want to be named – “The image of a bunch of white guys booing an African-American president is about as bad as it gets.”
Well, yeah – duh. But it plays well in the Republican South. And of course that’s the problem:
Brian Jones, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee, finds it frustrating when lawmakers like Wilson hijack the party’s public persona.
“You have a little bit of tyranny of the minority with these people,” he says. “It may raise their profile, it may make them more attractive in their district – but does it really help the image of the party in the midst of an important debate? I think no. Obviously, there are some who will be cheering this, but I think the cake is baked with them in terms of how they feel about Obama and health care.”
But the senator from Texas, John Cornyn, the chairman of the Republicans’ campaign arm in the Senate, is cited as saying that it’s just not fair to tar all Republicans with the jerks on the fringe, and really, they won’t last:
“I think that it’s a free country,” he says. “Anybody can say what they want – they can identify themselves as a Democrat, independent, a Republican, a socialist or whatever they want to call themselves. That doesn’t mean they were representative of a political party or the mainstream of a political party.”
Down the line, he says, when the primary fields clear and the party’s candidates become better known, “then the voice of the Republican Party in states across the country are going to be their Republican nominee and candidate,” he says. But “right now,” he says, “there’s sort of a void because that hasn’t formed yet.”
So cut them some slack. Every family has its problem children. Daddy will be home soon. Things will settle down. And Minority Whip Eric Cantor says of this boorish behavior – “I don’t see it as any definition of our party.”
Still Brian Jones isn’t happy:
“As someone who is center-right, it does make you cringe,” says Jones. For example, he says, “the notion of certain parents not sending their kids to school because they don’t want their kids being exposed to the propaganda of the president — to me that’s absurd. And parents have right to do that, I guess, but that’s representative of the same mind-set, I think.”
And Coller notes Democrats have had this problem too:
During the run-up to the Iraq war, for example, Reps. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and David Bonior (D-Mich.) famously flew to Baghdad, where McDermott asserted that he believed the president would “mislead the American public” to justify the war. The trip made it a cakewalk for critics to describe the Democratic Party as chock-a-block with traitorous radicals.
Of course those three turned out to be right, but that’s another matter.
Still, with this Republican silliness, Cooler says you sense that they kind of like it:
Indeed, both Cantor and Boehner behaved Thursday like parents who know they must reprimand a child whose misbehavior has secretly delighted them – later in the day, both could be found praising the efforts of hundreds of conservative activists assembled outside the Capitol, who several times chanted “You lie!” en masse, openly rallying around the very incident their leadership had supposedly disavowed.
But there is the Republican strategist John Weaver saying that the Wilson incident isn’t a “huge deal” by itself, but “taken together with what’s happened over the last eight years, it’s symptomatic of what our problem is” –
“We do have structural, demographic issues we’re not addressing,” he said. “But we also have tone problems. We could have the best policy ideas in the world, but we can’t get anybody to buy them if our salespeople are angry. Nobody wants to hang out with a bunch of cranks.”
Not even other cranks?
Actually, there’s a history here, and a reader at Andrew Sullivan’s site nails it:
Yes, the GOP of 2009 is the party of torture and fiscal recklessness. But as Joe Wilson’s outburst last night made clear, it is every bit as much the party of the College Republicans.
Wilson’s catcalling was only part of it. This is the party of Colson and Segretti, Atwater and Rove, Kristol and Norquist. It is the party of Joe Wilson and the odious Patrick McHenry, the latter a bad caricature of a South Park or Simpsons character. Just look at them, with the “What bill?” signs around their necks, waving the copies of their “bill” in the President’s face as he patiently explained to them why they are so very full of shit.
It’s a matter of not growing up:
Optics, not reality, is what matters. Everything can be massaged with a Mission Accomplished banner, a sympathetic interview on Fox News, or a whisper campaign that your opponent is a faggot.
Juvenile, manipulative, impossibly smarmy, hateful – or at least more than willing to use the weapon of other people’s hate – and, above all, relentlessly cynical. To these (mostly) men, politics is not the “art of the possible”, not a means for peaceably grappling with the most difficult and complex issues of the day, or for attempting to improve the lives of people you will never meet. It is nothing but a game, one where the object is not just to win but to destroy your enemies with a weird mix of angry slander and junior high insults – and to have a good chuckle while admiring your handiwork.
And this leads to no good:
It is an attitude that enables one to label a respected judge who worked with disadvantaged children a pedophile (as Rove’s minions did in an Alabama Supreme Court race in 1994), or to put Sarah Palin on a presidential ticket.
Just as for the neocons it is always 1938, for the professional College Republicans in the House GOP, it is always the annual convention, with the hotly-contested race for treasurer or secretary between one guy from Michigan State and another from Clemson. Accusations of fraud abound, frat boys and bookworms alike go berserk as they see their chances of interning with the RNC slip away, and desperate calls are made to worshipped alumni with the hope that some measure of revenge can be exacted. Nerd libido harnessed to cynical rage.
Welcome to the House the College Republicans Built. For our benefit, President Obama is more than happy to let them live in it.
One of the last of the Republican intellectuals, David Frum says yes, but this doesn’t matter:
Suppose some Republican members did act supremely badly yesterday. Saddling the nation with trillions of dollars of new debt seems a roundabout way to punish them for it. Too much writing about politics takes the form of movie reviews. The script failed, the part was poorly played, I didn’t like the show. But it’s not a show. Perhaps some of the Republican opposition has been hysterical or buffoonish or in some cases manipulative and deceptive. But it is the president’s plan and this party’s bills that will or will not become law, and their failings are not diminished one whit by the deficiencies of their opponents.
Sullivan will have none of that:
Trillions of dollars of new debt? It’s a paid-for $900 billion over ten years. I agree we need to come back and grapple with healthcare costs in the context of overall budgetary reform. But not until the economy is healthier. And is someone who worked for George W. Bush honestly blaming Obama for trillions of dollars in new debt?
And as for the boorishness of yahoos and Obama being happy to let them be assholes, see Ta-Nehisi Coates:
I keep meeting lefties who tell me Obama’s “too soft” with these guys, and I keep looking at them like they’re crazy. I am going to go out on a limb and say that there is something deeper at work here, something beyond the policy fights. I think a lot of us don’t just want Obama to be effective – we want him to exact some measure of revenge. It’s smart to understand the difference between the two, and moreover, how the desire for one can undermine the other. A section of conservatives love Sarah Palin because she drives liberals crazy. That she drives a lot of other people crazy too, and hence undermines herself, is beside the point.
Yep, let the other side be wacky, and don’t go there yourself. Sullivan concurs:
I repeat my belief in the core attraction of Obama’s candidacy and presidency: that he is not engaging in Rove-Morris daily politicking, or descending into the cable news muck. The whole point of the Obama candidacy, in my view, was to help us get past that to a substantive discussion of practical policy decisions which America simply has to face.
Is he tilting the country leftward? In one sense, yes. He believes that government has been too inert in confronting healthcare costs and access; he believes it was too passive in the face of irresponsible unregulated financial markets; he believes we need to move to a post-carbon economy sooner rather than later; he believes we should never have gotten into Iraq; he believes it is better to find a way to resolve the Israel-Palestinian question than to allow it to blow up the entire Middle East (and us); and he believes, it appears, that we have to hunker down in Afghanistan. Sure, he’s liberal in this sense. But doesn’t he have a fricking point after the last eight years?
The idea here is that fair is fair:
But the right had its chances and blew it. And the problems are real and he’s our best bet at tackling them seriously for a long time to come. Moreover, Obama’s proposals are within the center of rational debate, and he is open to persuasion. As he said last night, he’s happy to back tort reform, or McCain’s catastrophic insurance idea. He has also bent to the Clinton position on mandates. His proposal, one should recall, is to massively increase the markets for private insurance companies and drug companies. If David Cameron, the British Tory leader, were to propose this, he’d be called a Thatcherite radical. But in the world of Fox News, this is tantamount to government “take-over”. Piffle. Claptrap. Bollocks.
And there is only one way forward:
He needs to stay bipartisan, reasoned, and centrist to succeed. Despite the fulminations of an unhinged GOP, he is doing all of that. Many of us supported him not to revive a right-left war, but to try to move past that divide. He has kept that promise. We need to reward him with our support.
But that’s hard. An email from Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta:
I tuned into Neal Boortz late this morning. He had earlier apparently criticized Joe Wilson for speaking out, so some woman called in from Texas and asked something like, “Hey, if we can have the British health care system, why can’t we have their parliamentary system, in which they heckle each other in public?”
Boortz, to his credit, said something like, “Well, because it’s not our culture to heckle like that. He shouldn’t have done it.”
But it was noteworthy that he did not say what was really needed to be said, which is, “Madam, the Obama plan has absolutely nothing in common with the British system,” and then go on to specify how they differ.
This is why we’re in the fix that we’re in. Nobody on the other side finds it necessary to tell the whole truth. Not only can’t we solve things in a bi-partisan way, we can’t even honestly discuss them.
And a reader at Talking Points Memo explains why:
Wilson’s outburst reflects something deeper. One recurrent theme of extremist assaults on the president has been the deep, visceral conviction that he’s hiding an extremist agenda. The more moderate his rhetoric, the more reasonable his tone, the more detailed and specific his claims, the deeper this conviction grows. If you start with the presumption that the president is trying to foist his socialist agenda on an unsuspecting nation, then his apparent moderation and civility is actually further evidence of his duplicity. When nonpartisan groups substantiate his claims, it’s because they’re swallowing his transparent lies instead of revealing his real, hidden agenda. Every bit of apparent evidence that the president is reasonable only makes the situation more desperate – how to break through the illusion and reveal him for what he is?
We saw this dynamic recur again and again throughout the month of August, as anger boiled over at town hall meetings. Right wing activists insisted that they knew, to a moral certainty, what the plan was actually about, and demanded that their representatives acknowledge the truth. Such arguments are immune from rebuttal; at their very heart lies the esoteric contention that the real agenda is only implicit, hidden within the bill’s provisions, and that seemingly benign clauses actually contain loopholes that will be nefariously exploited following its passage.
So when the president stood up and declared that the bills mean what they say, Wilson simply couldn’t contain himself any longer.
So it’s come to this.
But at least we have Barney Frank:
I’d say what Wilson did was a mark of their frustration and, you know, Barack Obama is a big boy. I think I must say that any Republican, particularly a Joe Wilson who’d want to get into a debate with Barack Obama is tugging on Superman’s cape and pulling the Lone Ranger’s mask, but if that’s what he wants to do… free country.
The Republicans represent an extremely conservative faction and the notion that those of us who won the election with a solid majority should compromise 50/50 with those who won’t… well then why have elections?
I noticed last week in the New York Times that the responsible conservatives are starting to complain now that the arguments against the Obama plan and against our effort to do health care are being dominated by the crazies. Well, that’s their fault. They were very happy to have the crazies getting out there doing Hitler stuff and etc. But I think the Republicans, they don’t have good arguments. When people make ridiculous arguments against something, it’s because that’s all they’ve got.
And now they’re letting everyone know that, and asking for approval. That’s curious. But let them be.