THERE’S A temptation to view South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson’s outburst during President Obama’s speech on Wednesday - “You lie!’’ - as a simple breach of decorum. And it was certainly that. But in directly channeling the name-calling and playground tactics that occurred during many of this summer’s town hall meetings, Wilson also proved Obama’s point that wild accusations are sidetracking the health care debate. In that regard, Wilson was the best thing that happened to Obama.
Just in case anyone is wondering whether Wilson had a good point behind his bad manners, he didn’t. His comment followed Obama’s assertion that his health plan would not benefit illegal immigrants. Wilson, who apologized for his conduct but didn’t withdraw his opinion, claims that Obama would indeed give benefits to illegals. Wilson’s defenders argue that because health plans lack specific enforcement mechanisms against illegal immigrants, some could obtain phony Social Security numbers and sneak onto the rolls. That’s like saying Obama’s health plan benefits thieves and murderers, since they could theoretically do the same.
It’s a bogus point that demonstrates how badly some opponents want to demonize the president and the cause of universal health care. Obama yesterday accepted Wilson’s apology, and there’s no point in adding to the incivility by piling on. But Americans seeking to cut through the thicket of claims and counterclaims should look hard at the messengers and try to assess their motives.
As Obama pointed out, Americans have long sought to balance fears of excessive government action against the risks of no action. Some representatives have a reflexive, ideological resistance to government action. Cloaking their legitimate concerns in lurid masks - rewarding illegal immigrants! harming the elderly! - betrays nothing but the inability to answer Obama on his own terms. Representatives like Wilson can’t explain why no reforms or different reforms are better than the president’s proposal. Whether or not people agree, those would be arguments most Americans are prepared to listen to, civilly.