The High Ground Feels a Little Lonely

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Last week, Rep. Joe Wilson was in disgrace for shouting "You lie!" at President Obama on the House floor. But on Tuesday evening, the South Carolina Republican was back on the floor in a new role: martyr.

The House was debating a proposal to rebuke him for the outburst, but instead of giving Democrats the apology they sought, the miscreant went on the offensive. "This action today will have done nothing for the taxpayers to rein in the growing cost and size of the federal government," he declared. Accusing the Democrats of playing "games" and muzzling Republicans' constituents, he went on: "When we are done here today, we'll not have taken any steps closer to helping more American families afford health insurance."

The record will show that Democrats prevailed in Tuesday's party-line vote to reprimand Wilson. But it would be difficult to describe what happened on the House floor as a victory for the majority.

The energy was all on the Republican side, where more than 50 lawmakers sat and watched and applauded -- double the number sitting on the Democratic side. One after another, Republicans rose to defend Wilson and to declare the Democrats "childish" and "partisan," while on the Democratic side, not a single rank-and-file member was willing -- or, perhaps, allowed -- to join party leaders in speaking in favor of the resolution.

In the final tally, 17 Democrats defected, voting "no" or "present," while only seven Republicans went against Wilson. As the votes came in, Wilson accepted his colleagues' hugs, handshakes, pats on the back and, from Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Tex.), even a fist bump.

There's no question that Democrats were justified in rebuking Wilson for his disgraceful outburst, which was a clear violation of House rules, not to mention all standards of civility. But that doesn't mean it was a good idea to rebuke Wilson. Last week, Democrats were on the high ground: Even Republicans were scolding the lawmaker, while the majority party talked about health care. But in bringing a House resolution to punish Wilson, Democrats wound up making him a hero and turning the matter into a party-line brawl.

"We're here on some witch hunt, some partisan stunt that the American people are not going to respect," Republican leader John Boehner (Ohio) declared on the floor.

"This is not a partisan stunt; I do not participate in partisan stunts," responded Jim Clyburn (S.C.), the Democratic whip.

"I am at a loss as to what this is if it's not a partisan stunt," rejoined Eric Cantor (Va.), the Republican whip.

Obama, in an interview on CBS's "60 Minutes" over the weekend, said he had concerns about House Democrats' plans to reprimand Wilson: "It becomes a big circus instead of us focusing on health care."

Obama's fears were realized even before the resolution came to the floor. Rep. Hank Johnson (Ga.) ran into reporters in the Capitol basement as he headed to a meeting of House Democrats. He declared that Wilson's two-word outburst had "instigated" racism.

"I guess we'll have folks putting on white hoods and robes again and riding through the countryside intimidating people," Johnson said. "That's the logical conclusion if this kind of attitude is not rebuked."

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.), on her way to the same meeting, took a rather different view. "If it looks like we're trying to humiliate the guy, it plays straight into their hands," she said. "I think he should man up, but I'm not sure we should push him to do it."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) probably had similar thoughts last week when she urged her colleagues to move on. "Mr. Wilson has apologized," she said at a news conference. "It's time for us to talk about health care and not Mr. Wilson."

Pelosi finally relented on the resolution, but the floor debate seemed to justify her original position.

"None of us is happy to be here considering this resolution," began Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

Actually, Wilson seemed happy. He leapt up so quickly to respond that Boehner waved a finger at him to wait.

Clyburn, leading the fight against his South Carolina neighbor, began by announcing that "I stand here as a former teacher," and his argument was accordingly schoolmarmish. "Proper contrition is expected," he said. But because there were no other Democratic speakers, the Republicans' arguments went mostly unanswered.

"Let's focus on tackling the challenges that face our country," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.).

"I continue to reserve" my time, said Clyburn.

"Joe Wilson is a patriotic American who has defended our freedom in uniform," announced Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.).

"I continue to reserve," said Clyburn.

"Our economy is struggling, families are hurting, and Congress is poised to demand an apology from a man who has already apologized," said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.).

"I continue to reserve," said Clyburn. Finally, the reserved Clyburn repeated his argument that "proper contrition has not been made" and that "the first sign of a good education is good manners."

This sermon on manners was interrupted by the loud ringing of a cellphone on the Democratic side. The musical ringtone continued for several seconds before Rep. Diane Watson (Calif.) picked up her purse and left the House floor to take the call. On the GOP side, Wilson continued to accept congratulations.

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