South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson has apologized. President Barack Obama has accepted his apology. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has said that despite the violation of House rules, she is satisfied not to press the matter further since the President has accepted the apology.
It would be nice if the matter ended here. But it has not and it will not.
Mr. Wilson's Democratic challenger received hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions instantly over the Internet in response to his outburst. The Democratic party is going to make use of this unfortunate incident in its future fundraising.
Mr. Wilson shouted, "You lie," when President Obama stated that the proposed health care reform would not provide coverage to illegal aliens. All authoritative reports have stated that President Obama was right. The proposed reforms explicitly exclude illegal aliens.
Republicans and organizations advocating stronger measures against illegal aliens contend that the proposed heath care reforms, while excluding illegal aliens, contain no measure sufficient for the enforcement of this exclusion. Whatever the merits of their position, it is an issue beyond what President Obama was addressing. He was not lying.
Nevertheless, while Mr. Wilson has become a symbol of Republican intransigence for Democratic fundraisers, he has also become a hero to those who are advocating stronger measures against illegal aliens.
"It is a real shame that the rest of Congress was not on their feet pointing out the president's lie about illegal aliens in his healthcare plans," said William Gheen, president of the Americans for Legal Immigration, a political action committee. (Los Angeles Times)
Without going into all the other permutations of this event, and without detracting from Mr. Wilson's apology or in any way questioning his sincerity, it is important to focus on just what happened and why his action was an offence.
President Obama was acting in his official capacity in addressing a joint session of Congress. There are rules that govern the conduct of the members of Congress in these events. Mr. Wilson and his party have recognized that he violated these rules.
This was not a town hall meeting. This was an official address to the elected members of Congress. It was not a time for debate.
Neither should the customs and rules of this event be confused with the customs and rules of a meeting of Parliament in Great Britain where the Prime Minister is regularly shouted down by the opposition.
We are Americans. We have different rules and customs by which we show respect for the elected head of the executive branch of our republic.
The Republican minority appropriately registered their displeasure with President Obama's speech by remaining seated at the several points when the party of the majority stood and applauded. That is their right. They also have the right to criticize the President after the speech on the floor of their respective bodies and in the press.
What we have here is an instance when the opposition ceased to be the loyal opposition. Mr. Wilson's outburst was not merely an act of opposition, but an act of disrespect for the office of the Presidency. It was such an act, in and of itself, even if – as I suspect – Mr. Wilson did not intend it to be. It was an act of disrespect for the office of the Presidency because it violated the rules and customs for a joint meeting of the Congress.
It is in the observance of these rules and customs that respect for the office of the Presidency is expressed.
William Kristol of the Weekly Standard has advocated that the Republican Party act as the loyal opposition to the agenda of the President and the majority in Congress. This is certainly acceptable and even beneficial for the republic.
The nature of disrupted town hall meetings of August and this incident with Mr. Wilson raise serious questions, however, about the loyalty of the minority's opposition. Unfortunately for Mr. Wilson, his outburst is within a larger context that he may or may not be party to.
To give just one example.
When continued unreasonable questions are raised about the constitutional eligibility of Mr. Obama to be President, and no one in the opposition denounces this absurdity, the question needs to be asked: Does the opposition recognize the decision of the electorate and the legitimacy of this Presidency? Or is this opposition so self-righteously dedicated to its position that it will not let respect for the office or the electorate stand in its way?
It is way past time for the conservative minority to demonstrate the loyalty of its opposition.