Friday, September 11, 2009

Joe Wilson: the liar who cried foul

By DeWayne Wickham

The thing that bothers me most about Joe Wilson is not that he interrupted President Barack Obama’s nationally televised address on health care reform to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday with the shrill charge, “You lie.”

The GOP backbencher’s exercise of free speech, for which he quickly apologized, didn’t upset me as much as his arrogance. The odor of mendacity wafting through the chamber came not from Obama, but from the mouth of Wilson, a five-term South Carolina representative.

Wilson’s outburst came in response to Obama’s assertion that “the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.” That was a direct rebuttal of a major talking point for congressional Republicans: the claim that Obama’s proposals would insure illegal immigrants.

They reach this conclusion based not on what’s in the health care reform legislation pushed by Democrats, but on what they say isn’t in the bill. They say the president and his fellow Democrats, by not mandating that everyone who gets health care coverage be required to produce proof of citizenship, would open a back door to cover people in the country illegally.

Never mind that federal law already requires employers to verify the legal status of all new hires. Wilson and other Republican naysayers persist in saying the sky is falling because Democrats wouldn’t require federal officials to duplicate that verification process.

And they appear oblivious to language in the House bill that would bar illegal immigrants from getting coverage through a proposed health insurance exchange. The exchange would offer coverage to people who aren’t part of an employer’s plan and aren’t covered by Medicare and Medicaid.

But Section 246 of the House bill makes clear there’s no opening here for illegal immigrants to slip through.

“Nothing in this subtitle shall allow federal payments for affordability credits on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully present in the United States,” the bill reads.

If you still accept Wilson’s charge that the president lied, consider this: A few days before Wilson’s rant, the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan arm of Congress, released an analysis of health care legislation moving through the House. It concluded that only U.S. citizens and legal residents could get federal health care subsidies.

So what motivated Wilson?

It’s a good bet his outburst was something akin to the flailing of a drowning man. But it’s not Wilson alone who’s at risk of going under, it’s the entire Republican Party. The GOP seems to stand for nothing more these days than opposition to Barack Obama’s presidency.

To call it simply “the party of no” is to assign a fairly benign reason for its demise. Republicans stumbled to the precipice because they ran out of ideas. But the GOP movement dominated by right-wingers like Wilson is much more nefarious.

It’s the rear guard of the “states’ rights movement” that was the political arm of the Jim Crow era, and the linear successor of Dixiecrats who broke with the Democratic Party in 1948 and found a home in the GOP. At a time when America is becoming more diverse, the GOP looks like — and sometimes behaves like — the White Citizens’ Council that once dominated Southern life.

These are desperate times for the GOP, and desperate people do desperate things — like hurling an insult at the president of the United States from the floor of Congress.

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