Thursday, September 10, 2009
I've been trying to straighten out some thoughts I've been having lately about civility in American politics enough to create a blog post or two on that subject. You can look for that in the near future, if you care to.
On a related note, the political world is abuzz this morning because of the decidedly uncivil outburst last night by Rep. Joe Wilson (R.-SC) during the president's address to a joint session of Congress on health care reform.
Wilson's episode came at a particularly misleading portion of the president's speech. What little health-care legislation that the public has been able to see absolutely does provide for abortion on demand to be covered and absolutely does not require that people be U.S. citizens to qualify for government-run health insurance. Amendments meant to fix these particularly atrocious parts of a bad House bill were shot down in committee--indicating that they're in there by malevolent design rather than gross negligence.
At any rate, Obama was purring right along, smoothly, glibly and, as always, indirectly mischaracterizing what others have said so that he can conveniently call them liars or call their objections "scare tactics," when up pipes a lone voice:
Now, it's not as if no one has expressed disagreement with this president. It's not as if there weren't smatterings of disgruntled groans (I assume mostly among Republican lawmakers) during the president's speech.
But for someone to up and announce what needed no announcing, to loudly proclaim with his mouth what everyone in the room and what anyone listening--whether he cares to admit it or not--can see with his own eyes and hear with his own ears...well, that was either a bold act of political courage or a disgraceful act of nearly unimaginable rudeness.
If you're in the former camp--and I admit I am--you have to stop and think about what it means for stating the obvious to be considered an act of courage. It's not like Obama hasn't said everything he said last night before, ad nauseum. We've heard all these same vague platitudes, silky-smooth insults and straw men from him before. Yet those politicians who disagree with him insist on doing so so tentatively that sometimes it's hard to tell that they disagree at all, and when they do, they take issue only with the driest matters of policy. Certainly, they never have called him out on his insulting tone and dishonest poses before. But I guess the setting--a joint session of the U.S. Congress--and his slightly more sarcastic tone and his just a whit more noticeable air of entitlement last night made his nonsense just that much more execrable than before, and just a little more impossible for at least one obscure southern politician to smile and nod his head through.
So the naive child in "The Emperor's New Clothes" has been replaced by the angry South Carolina congressman. And surely the little kid can be forgiven for disregarding the rules of polite behavior more than the middle-aged man. I'm pretty sure it's considered out of order for a member of the House to shout "you lie!" at the head of state while he's trying to make a speech.
Yet consider the context and (yet again) the setting: Vice President Joe Biden said that Wilson's outburst "demeaned the institution" of the U.S. Congress. Under normal circumstances, I'd have to agree with him.
But these circumstances are far from normal. A president has the constitutional prerogative to call a joint session of Congress. The tradition has been, though, for each house of Congress to decide separately when it will meet, with the president delivering his "State of the Union" address before a joint session once a year, only calling any additional joint session in the direst of emergencies.
Obama has said at different times in the past that 5o million or 45 million Americans are without health care. Last night he cited that figure at 37 million, I suppose because he found it convenient to temporarily stop labeling illegal aliens as "Americans" (the actual figure is closer to 13 million actual Americans who want to buy health care but can't), and that is, officially anyway, his paradigm of an emergency.
But the real emergency here is that Obama's political bacon is getting burned up in the fire that he ignited. Public opposition to health-care reform that he wanted to be a done deal before Congress' August recess has been growing for two months now. The more he opened his mouth, the more that "conversation" among equal citizens began to look like a peasant revolt against an entitled elite.
So Obama had to go before the cameras to work his charm...again. And to lend some gravitas to what basically amounts to a glorified publicity stunt, he turned the show into a joint session of Congress. Then he preceded to tell the same old smooth, glib story he has been since he assumed power ("The time for talk is over; the time to act is now." "We can't wait." "Shut up and do it now," etc., etc.), only with just a little more edge to it.
If doing all that doesn't amount to "demeaning the institution," I don't think that Joe Wilson can hurt it any more by being rude.