It wasn’t just Wilson

IT WASN’T JUST WILSON…. Towards the end of his speech last night, President Obama reminded lawmakers that when we reach the point at which “we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter,” we lose more than just “our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.”

Congressional Republicans would have benefited from hearing the remarks, but they chose not to listen. Instead, they brought some of the Tea Baggers’ town-hall tactics to the House. Rep. Joe Wilson’s (R-S.C.) outburst was the most notable, but it was part of a larger GOP trend.

The national debate, already raw for years, had coarsened over the summer as town hall meetings across the country dissolved into protests about “death panels” and granny-killing. Guns were brought to Obama appearances. A pastor in Arizona said he was praying for Obama to die.

But even by that standard, there was something appalling about the display on the House floor for what was supposed to be a sacred ritual of American democracy: the nation watching while Cabinet members, lawmakers from both chambers and the diplomatic corps assembled.

Wilson was only the most flagrant. There was booing from House Republicans when the president caricatured a conservative argument by saying they would “leave individuals to buy health insurance on their own.” They hissed when he protested their “scare tactics.” They grumbled as they do in Britain’s House of Commons when Obama spoke of the “blizzard of charges and countercharges.”

In truth, right-wing politicians behaving like children isn’t nearly as important as the substantive debate. But therein lies the point: if House Republicans aren’t prepared to bring credible ideas to the table, the least they could do is show some decency and pretend to be adults.

I don’t want to exaggerate the significance of this. I care far less about GOP lawmakers acting like ignorant buffoons and far more about GOP lawmakers thinking that Americans have too much insurance and Medicare should be privatized. Their conduct, however, does say something interesting about their maturity, their character, and how they’re approaching this debate.

What’s more, as Alex Koppelman noted, there are the political implications to consider: “All of it will serve to reinforce the impression, which reform supporters have been working hard to create and spread, that Republicans have gone around the bend, that they’re more interested in attacking Obama than in reaching across the aisle to work on reform. And it makes Obama look calm, bipartisan and presidential.”