Town hall anger echoed in Congress

Many Facebook and Twitter users condemned Rep. Joe Wilson for his outburst toward President Obama.
Shouting from the audience. Holding up signs blasting the health care reform bill before Congress. Frequent hissing and booing.

Though it sounds like behavior at one of the health care town hall meetings last month, it was how some Republicans reacted to President Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night. But Norm Ornstein, a longtime observer of Congress and an expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said the tone and behavior from members of Congress are not necessarily new. “A lot of what went on [Wednesday] night has become fairly typical of what we’ve seen in the State of the Union messages over the last 10 or 12 years, where it’s one side jumping up wildly and the other side sitting on their hands in stony silence.” The most memorable moment came from Rep. Joe Wilson, R-South Carolina, who shouted “You lie” after the president said that a Democratic-sponsored health care bill would not cover illegal immigrants. Ornstein said that in addition to being beyond the bounds of what is typical, Wilson’s comment is “just sort of stunning in the level of disrespect for not just the president but the presidency.” Watch more of Wilson’s outburst During several moments in Obama’s speech, members of the GOP hissed and yelled at the president as he laid out his plan for reform. One Republican wore a sign around his neck saying, “What bill” House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, was seen several times typing on his phone during the speech. Vice President Joe Biden told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Thursday that he was “embarrassed for the chamber and a Congress I love.” Observers said the behavior is probably indicative of the vitriolic sentiments found during town hall meetings. “I think a lot of those Republican members went home to their district and were met with very angry reaction from their constituents. Congress, as you know, is pretty polarized,” said Kasie Hunt, a health care reporter for National Journal’s Congress Daily. “I think, in some ways, that’s what you really saw last night: the degree of acceptance of that angry discord that we’ve really hadn’t seen in a long time.” Hunt said there is still a lot of misunderstanding among Republican members of Congress.

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John O’Connor, who covers politics for The State newspaper in South Carolina, said that a lot of Wilson’s anger mirrors what many feel in his home state. “I think he feels the way a lot of people in South Carolina feel about [health care reform]. They’re suspicious. They’re worried. There’s some fear out there about what could happen.” But O’Connor points out that South Carolina tends to be more conservative than other states, and Wilson’s town halls were generally civil. “Rep. Wilson, however, held a town hall meeting in Columbia where, for the most part, there was a pretty reasoned debate,” he added. “There were folks on both sides raising issues, asking questions.” Still, it might have been Wilson’s constituents’ anger and distrust that contributed to the outburst in Congress, O’Connor noted. “His takeaway from that was that people support his stance, which was to oppose any version of what he’s calling Obamacare,” he said. “So despite the fact that there was clearly some support in that audience for doing something about health care and health insurance, he kind of had a different impression of what the majority of the crowd thought.” Could Wilson face any trouble for his comments Wednesday night Unlikely, according to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi said Thursday that there is a procedure that could have been implemented to strike Wilson’s “lie” comment from the record. But she said the president did the right thing in continuing on and not giving it “any more attention than it deserved.” Pelosi indicated that she would not press the issue farther. “As far as I’m concerned, the episode was unfortunate. Mr. Wilson has apologized. It’s time for us to talk about health care and not Mr. Wilson,” she said. Political observers in South Carolina opine that the comment heard around the world “was a little surprising.” “This is not his personality. He’s not a guy who tends to make a lot of inflammatory statements. You expect that a lot more from Rep. DeMint [Republican from South Carolina] than Wilson for sure,” O’Connor added. Wilson said Thursday that his outburst was simply “spontaneous.” Watch Obama’s full speech Meanwhile, the controversy surrounding him — and anger on both sides of the aisle to his statement — has helped his opponent in the 2010 midterm election. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said Thursday afternoon that since Wilson’s comment, his Democratic opponent, former Marine Rob Miller, received 11,000 individual grass-roots contributions and raised more than $400,000. During the 2008 election, when support for Democrats and Obama was high, Wilson faced a tough slog against Miller. The Republican, who represents the 2nd Congressional District, including most of Columbia and parts east, won 54 percent of the vote to Miller’s 46 percent.

Ornstein added that Wilson’s comment was an “incredibly dumb thing to do” for the broader picture of the Republican Party. “It was a gift, in a way, to Barack Obama,” he said. “To independent voters out there, this just underscored the notion that you’ve got a party that is unremittingly hostile to the president that has no interest in negotiating or finding common ground.”