Watch CBSN Live

Meet Joe Wilson, Conservative Martyr

(AP Photo/Harry Hamburg)
The Democrats believe the angels are on their side but they better hope one of them is not named Satan. Just as President Obama was reasserting control over the health care reform debate after a wasted August, he's got to deal with another phony controversy - this time it's the "political martyrdom" of Congressman Joe Wilson.

Late this afternoon, the House of Representatives voted 240 to 179 largely along party lines to pass a resolution expressing disapproval of Wilson's infamous "You Lie" outburst during the president's speech to a joint session of Congress last week. As satisfying as that must be to many Democrats, the transmogrification of Wilson into a political piñata (and thus the latest cause celebre' for the right) may turn into yet another side issue diverting the public's attention from health care reform, which you might recall, supposedly was the most important item on the White House's fall agenda.

No doubt the Dems still have a month's worth of bile left over, courtesy of the tea party folks who turned August into a veritable hell for them. Who wouldn't want to deal out a little payback, should the opportunity present itself? And on paper, at least, Wilson constitutes their dream villain. A member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Wilson is just one of seven members of the South Carolina Senate to vote in favor of letting the Confederate battle flag fly over the state house in 2000. What's more, there are those now deconstructing his loudmouth heckling of the president as a display of good ol' boy racism from south of the Mason-Dixon line.

But do the Democrats really want to go there just now? After the summer flap over Henry Louis Gates arrest, the White House doesn't need another distraction where race is the sub-text. Conservatives are already crying foul, arguing that this is the sort of show trial that only a San Francisco liberal might dream up. But it's not so black and white. In fact, the best known San Francisco liberal of them all, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, didn't seem especially eager to pick a new fight with the Republicans. Last week, Pelosi said that it was "time for us to talk about health care and not Mr. Wilson," a signal that the Obama administration wasn't eager to fuel this controversy any further. (I know. That was "last week" and things change. Still...)

Too late. The Wilson affair now takes its place along the other time-wasting mini-novellas this administration has had to deal with since spring. The more this melodrama plays out on cable television and the blogosphere, the less serious debate we'll have about the Obama health reform plan. Michael Steele and the GOP's congressional leadership couldn't have asked for anything more. Call it the Republican Rope-a-Dope.


You Can't Say That? Oh, You're In Congress. OK.

In the aftermath of the Wilson affair, there's been no shortage of bloviation about the permissible boundaries of speech afforded to elected representatives who want to criticize the president.

This is not the first time Congress has found itself in the midst of a debate over defining proper rules of the road for the hired help. Happily, there are already existing guidelines. During the first year of William Howard Taft's presidency, the House drew up a report in response to unflattering remarks made about the president during a floor debate.

According to section 370 of the House Rules and Manual, a member is allowed to:

• refer to the government as "something hated, something oppressive."
• refer to the President as "using legislative or judicial pork."
• refer to a Presidential message as a "disgrace to the country."
• refer to unnamed officials as "our half-baked nitwits handling foreign affairs."

So if Wilson or any other back bencher really wanted to give his lungs a workout on the House floor, they would be well within their rights to issue the following (imaginary) denunciation:

"Ladies and gentlemen, this president's giveaways to foreign countries only underscore the hatred of the average citizen for a government given to increasingly oppressive policies. Our president seems to be more interested in pursuing pork - to pay off his political debts - than he is to tending the needs of the people he was elected to serve. But I can't claim to be surprised by someone who won't provide a legitimate birth certificate. The president's statement made earlier today was simply a disgrace. Then again, considering the half-baked nitwits he's appointed as advisors, is it any wonder that our foreign policy is in such dire straits?"

More Joe Wilson Coverage on

Republicans on Attack Over Joe Wilson Resolution
Joe Wilson Gets Choked Up Over Floor Speech
Joe Wilson's Wife: I Couldn't Believe He Said It
Race Issue Simmers in Joe Wilson Flap
Will House Democrats Censure Joe Wilson?
The Joe Wilson Chronicles
Andrew Cohen: Joe Wilson's War
Watch the outburst.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue