Dennis Thatcher, husband of Margaret, often said of life in politics, “It is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.” Unfortunately, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) didn’t get that memo last night during Barack Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress regarding his healthcare plan.
Obama’s speech was well-delivered but vague, and his remark that “there remain some significant details to be ironed out” might have sufficed in lieu of much of what he said. He threw bones to his party, but also to the Republicans, giving a nod to malpractice reform and cautioning against “government bureaucrats.”
This wouldn’t have been a game changer. It wouldn’t have been an especially memorable speech had Joe Wilson not failed to know when to keep his mouth shut. Wilson felt compelled to respond to Obama’s assurances that illegal immigrants would not be covered under his health plan by shouting, “YOU LIE!” and prompting boos and jeers that temporarily turned the United States Congress into the British House of Commons.
It was these two words that tilted the sympathy of Congress, the media and the public towards Obama. Congressmen getting shouted at by foaming-at-the-mouth constituents get little sympathy. But what Joe Wilson and those who condone his boorishness don’t seem to get is that even as Americans continue to oppose the status quo in the Democrats’ healthcare plans, even as many are growing impatient with stimulus packages that have not yielded much bang for their buck, the fact is that the American people like Barack Obama, not necessarily as a policy maker but as a public figure, and they expect a certain level of decorum and respect at formal events such as joint session addresses. Barack Obama is America’s Head of State; he, and anyone who has or will hold that office deserves to be treated with a certain level of respect.
Joe Wilson’s behavior was akin to that of a hyperactive nine-year-old whose family cannot afford his ADHD medication. And like a child having a tantrum, Wilson has not gotten anything from his misbehavior. Instead, he has allowed the Democrat planning to run against him in 2010 to raise more than $500,000 in donations. He has made his party look ridiculous. And he has made himself look ridiculous, spawning the website JoeWilsonIsYourPreExistingCondition.com, which turns the tables and lobs accusatory statements at the Congressman including…
- Joe Wilson canceled Arrested Development.
- Joe Wilson hates America.
- Joe Wilson peed in your soup.
The second is particularly ironic, given Wilson himself accused a fellow Representative of hating America when he pointed out, during a 2002 discussion about WMDs in Iraq, that the United States had provided weapons to the Hussein regime during the Iran-Iraq War.
The Republican Party needs to engage Barack Obama on healthcare. They need to negotiate with the White House and the Democrats to avoid the “public option” proposal and some of the other overarching elements of healthcare reform. But there is an appropriate time and an appropriate manner in which to do that. And heckling the President when he gives an address to Congress on live national television is poor timing and poor judgment. Wilson did the right thing by apologizing in a timely manner (after urging from John McCain and others), but the damage is done.
Joe Wilson has done nothing but hurt his own party and efforts to pursue healthcare solutions that are better than the ones the Obama Administration has offered. Maybe next time the President gives a major speech, Mr. Wilson should do what many schoolchildren in his district did earlier this week – just stay home.