South Carolina 2: Forget Health Care and Afghanistan: Let’s All Talk About Joe Wilson

by Stuart Rothenberg September 17, 2009 · 9:00 AM EDT

The idea that South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson (R) created a firestorm about anything is amusing. Who, other than his buddies in the House and his constituents in the Palmetto State, has ever heard of the guy?

But the 2nd district Congressman’s ill-advised, improper and inappropriate shout during President Barack Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress got Wilson more bad publicity than he ever could have imagined. Learn to control yourself, Congressman.

Having said that, most of the attention to and outrage about Wilson’s behavior is pretty silly. The guy acted like a jerk. He apologized. Fine, let’s move on. Personally, I think he should have quickly apologized from the House floor, since that’s where he made his blunder. But it’s not that big a deal.

Still, we live in an era when much of politics is about tactics, not ideas, so, confronted by a conundrum about health care, uncertainty about what to do about climate change and energy, and unappealing alternatives regarding Afghanistan, Democrats and many in the media decided that the No. 1 topic of the day was Wilson’s “You lie!” rebuke of Obama.

The Connecticut Democratic Party, for example, quickly issued a press release demanding that Republican Senate candidate Rob Simmons, a former House Member, “return” the $8,000 that Wilson had donated to Simmons years ago (before Wilson acted like a jerk last week). This is a standard tactic — both parties do it — even if it’s nonsense.

Less than 24 hours after Wilson’s screw-up, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was out with a fundraising e-mail about the South Carolina Republican’s behavior. Democratic fundraisers are no fools, and they wasted no time in trying to get angry Democratic contributors to dig deep.

Given how public opinion has changed regarding the president — and Congress — over the past six weeks, it’s hard to blame Congressional Democrats and their allies on MSNBC for trying to change the subject.

But let’s get real: Wilson doesn’t even rise to the importance of a footnote in history.

Wilson is getting credit for reviving a Democratic Party that seemed very much down in the dumps. Contributions to Wilson’s likely 2010 Democratic opponent, Rob Miller, skyrocketed. The DCCC reported on Thursday afternoon that Miller had taken in “more than $200,000 since Wilson’s outburst” from “5,000 new contributors.” By Friday afternoon, the fundraising total was over $800,000.

Influential Washington Post writer Chris Cillizza concluded that Wilson re-energized the Democratic base and helped “remind liberals that when compared to the alternative, the plan being put forward by Obama is far better.”

My friends at the Cook Political Report quickly changed their rating of Wilson’s re-election prospects, from safe Republican to likely Republican, though they didn’t change their fundamental evaluation of the seat.

“This conservative seat remains relatively secure,” they wrote, adding that the controversy looks like little more than “a distraction for the GOP.”

Still, that didn’t stop the DCCC from sending around the ratings change. Nor did it stop some at the liberal Daily Kos blog from encouraging like-minded combatants to support Miller, who lost to Wilson by 8 points in 2008 and is running again.

Is the “Joe Wilson controversy” likely to alter the health care debate, the future of the Obama presidency, the outcome of the midterm elections or the fate of Wilson, himself?

We won’t know the answer to any of these questions for months, but count me as skeptical that it will have much long-term impact at all.

The Wilson brouhaha is reminiscent of the Van Jones brouhaha, which percolated for a few days as conservatives, Fox News Channel and some mainstream reporters drove themselves into a tizzy over the administration official’s vulgar words and strange views about 9/11 (which he disavowed). But in the grand scheme of things, that, too, was a mere bump in the road.

When we all get back to discussing and fighting over health care reform — about the cost, the extent of coverage, the role of the bureaucracy and the inclusion (or not) of a public insurance option — the Wilson stuff will be quickly forgotten.

Two weeks from now, will still be angry at Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) will still be so worried about her re-election that she opposes a public option, and Republicans will still score points with seniors and conservatives worried about a “government takeover of health care.”

As for Wilson, who has also seen a fundraising windfall from the controversy, he remains, at least at this point, a solid favorite for re-election.

Miller, who drew 46 percent against Wilson last year, will have a bigger war chest next time, but he will also face greater hurdles.

Miller spent a considerable $624,000 in 2008, meaning he ran a real campaign. The combination of that cash, plus Obama’s appeal and the worst political environment for Republicans since at least 1982 (if not 1976), helped Miller add about 9 points to the showing of Wilson’s 2006 Democratic opponent, Michael Ray Ellisor, who did not raise enough money that year to file a federal fundraising report.

Given that Obama drew 45 percent of the vote in Wilson’s district in 2008, Miller’s percentage looks somewhat less than remarkable.

Wilson did energize liberals, but that was bound to happen anyway. The bloggers and cable TV talkers would have made sure of that. Tactics, after all, is what it’s all about these days.