How nasty has the political discourse in Washington become? During his speech to Congress Wednesday night, President Obama defended his health-care plan, saying that he had never proposed providing coverage to illegal immigrants. “You lie!” shouted Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina, prompting Obama to briefly pause in the delivery of his speech and eye his heckler. No doubt emotions are often heated during these joint sessions with the president and members of Congress, but decorum typically rules─except for Wednesday, apparently. In an interview with CNN afterward, Sen. John McCain trashed Wilson’s heckling and urged him to apologize. “Totally disrespectful,” McCain said. A little more than an hour after the speech, Wilson did just that, issuing a statement of regret. "This evening I let my emotions get the best of me when listening to the President's remarks regarding the coverage of illegal immigrants in the health care bill," he said. "While I disagree with the President's statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the President for this lack of civility." Wilson also called the White House and conveyed his apology to Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
Of course, it may be too little, too late. Wilson, a rank-and-file Republican, was largely unknown nationally before Wednesday's outburst. Now's he's a trending topic on Twitter and Google, and some critics are vowing to contribute money to his Democratic opponent in what already looks like a tough 2010 race. And, for the record, Wilson was wrong: H.R. 3200, the health-care bill under debate in the House, explicitly prohibits coverage for illegal immigrants.
One thing is for sure: Wilson’s outburst didn’t do the GOP any favors, particularly against a backdrop of a speech in which Obama went after his critics to either put up or shut up on health-care reform. It completely overshadowed the official Republican response to Obama’s speech. Rep. Charles Boustany, a cardiothoracic surgeon from Louisiana, urged Obama to scrap the current bill and start anew with true bipartisan negotiations. “We agree much needs to be done to lower the cost of health care for all Americans. On that goal, Republicans are ready─and we've been ready─to work with the president for common-sense reforms that our nation can afford,” he said.