Wilson's Punishment Serves Only Wings

For a brief moment after the inappropriate interjection of Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), it looked as if cooler heads might prevail.

Instead, the loudest and most partisan voices on both sides of the aisle fanned the flames. If there are any winners in this episode, it is right-wing talk radio and the left-wing Netroots, who either celebrated or condemned the original comment, the unnecessary vote for rebuke and the partisan breakdown of that vote.

Unfortunately, the excess and circus that prevailed will not prevent this sort of episode from happening again. Just the opposite. Expect vitriolic and even intentional provocations and escalations. They will be rewarded.

While both sides look bad in the debate, in the short term, it will hurt the Democratic majority more than the Republican minority.

Let's start with Wilson's outburst at President Barack Obama's health care speech before Congress. It lacked civility and was "inappropriate and regrettable," as Wilson characterized his actions in a publicly released apology the morning after the speech. Republicans can try to split hairs by bringing up other rude comments and boos when President George W. Bush addressed Congress, words taken down in the House over the years and even canings on the Senate floor in the 19th century. But none of these examples justifies interrupting a president's speech before Congress with the loudly uttered accusation of lying.

Wilson's initial reaction showed his discomfort with his remarks. He did not plan to ambush Obama but, rather, got caught up in the heat of the moment and said something he should not have.

No one should doubt the sincerity of his apology. He conveyed it to the president shortly thereafter with a call to White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. He also issued a public statement apologizing for his actions.

Should he have also made an apology to the House? Yes. Sadly, respect for the institution of Congress even by its own members is not what it should be. Too many think of their political party first and foremost and the institution of the House second.

Wilson should have acknowledged in some way that he had let down his institution. Obama was the target of Wilson's interjection, but Congress was the host of the president--and Congress, for good reason, has rules that attempt to steer debate toward more substantive matters rather than personal attacks.

In an ideal world, Wilson's apology would have also extended to Congress. It need not have come with a speech on the House floor. A private note to the speaker or a mention of his falling short of his duties as a member of the House in his released public statement would have sufficed. But the bigger picture is that Wilson did apologize quickly and sincerely, albeit not as completely as he might have.

The initial reaction of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) implicitly recognized that the matter should be quickly put in the past. Her inclination was to condemn the remark and move on to health care and other matters.

But in the day or two that followed, the left and right egged on their members. Bloggers weren't happy with a quick, sincere apology. They wanted blood. They wanted humiliation. They called for an abject speech on the House floor. Their fantasy was for Wilson to be dangled upside down out a window, forced to utter contrition after contrition, like Kevin Kline's character in the movie "A Fish Called Wanda."

The right, too, dug in its heels. A number of commentators described Wilson's comments as perhaps a bit rude but right on the money--and not deserving of an apology. Wilson himself felt that he had apologized enough early on.

While there are rules that prohibit the denigration of the president on the House floor, Wilson's interjection would not have appeared in the Congressional Record and did not require the House to act. The private condemnations and Wilson's public apology should have been enough to end this matter.

The fact that the extreme partisans liked the whole spectacle can be seen in their crowing at the money that has been raised by Wilson's Democratic opponent and Wilson himself. At the time of the vote, both had raised well over $1 million, close to the amount Wilson raised in the entire 2008 campaign cycle.

But what is this money good for? Wilson sits in a safe district. This episode is unlikely to hurt him electorally. The money just serves to glorify extreme comments and vindictive punishment.

While both sides look bad in the debate, in the short term, it will hurt the Democratic majority more than the Republican minority. The public looks to the governing party for answers; the minority has an easier job of highlighting the flaws of the majority. In 2012, Republicans should worry whether the excesses of tea parties and inappropriate comments will keep them from presenting a coherent alternative vision. But for the midterm elections, minority anger and trepidation provide some energy to a party otherwise down on its luck.

The real losers in this whole episode are the institution of Congress and the American people who are represented by it.

John C. Fortier is a research fellow at AEI.

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