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.”
Turn on the TV, and you see what he means.
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 president was helped more by the optics of House Republicans than by his own speech,” says former Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.). “It’s not likely to do any long-term damage, but they need to be very careful how they oppose this president.”
One veteran GOP official puts it bluntly: “The image of a bunch of white guys booing an African-American president is about as bad as it gets.”
Republican leaders were quick to distance themselves from Wilson’s outburst. John McCain said Wilson should apologize, and he did — although he also insisted that he was right about Obama’s lack of candor.
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 Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the chairman of the Republicans’ campaign arm in the Senate, suggests that it’s not fair to tar the GOP with its fringier elements — and that it won’t last anyway.
“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.”
The question for the GOP: What will fill that void in the meantime, and will it leave an indelible stain on the party even after its election-year A-team emerges? Will the party be known for its members of the Gang of Six — the senators working, with varying degrees of success, on a bipartisan health care plan — or for those who question everything from the president’s place of birth to his right to talk to the nation’s
“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.”
Jones notes that such sentiments are not limited to Republicans: “I lived in New York, in Brooklyn in ’04, and I remember hearing people saying, ‘When the Republican Convention comes, should we take our kids out of town? Because I don’t want them to be exposed to that.’”
Nor are Democrats strangers to having their crazy uncles take center stage. 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.
If Republican Party leaders are concerned that their members will suffer the same fate, however, they’re sure not acting like it.
The Wilson incident was “certainly unfortunate,” said Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), but “I don’t see it as any definition of our party,” he said.
And while House Minority Leader John Boehner said Thursday that he was glad Wilson had apologized for his outburst, he seemed to forgive the impulse behind the outburst, noting that passions over the health care debate are running high: “Don’t underestimate the amount of emotion that people are feeling,” he warned at a Capitol news conference.
Former Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.) notes that hot tempers and high spirits are not uncommon when the stakes are high:
“I remember after [President George W. Bush] announced his Social Security plan, I had 15 town meetings, and they were nasty. But I didn’t call them unruly mobs. The fact is this is a very, very contentious issue, and it’s a do-or-die issue for a lot of people,” he says.
While Wilson’s outburst was “the kind of thing that should never happen,” Bass says, it captured “this enormous pent-up frustration” among conservatives and Republicans over the issue of health care.
“I did not view him as some fringe crazy person at all,” Bass says. “He reflected the temperature of the public, at least the opponents of this plan, and I think there are enough of them that there isn’t a sense that the Republicans are out of their minds for opposing this plan.”
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.
Longtime GOP strategist John Weaver said 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.”