Joe Wilson Is Just a Symptom

House Democratic leaders gave Joe Wilson an ultimatum before the weekend: apologize on the House floor for shouting “You lie!” during President Obama’s health care speech or face a formal congressional rebuke this week.

Wilson issued his response on, fittingly enough, Fox News Sunday: “I've apologized one time. The apology was accepted by the president, by the vice president, who I know. I am not apologizing again.”

“This is playing politics,” he added.

Well, on that point he’s certainly right, although it’s hardly a revelation. Both chambers of Congress (but particularly the House) love doing this: an individual or group from one side of the aisle says or does something controversial, and the other side uses a condemnatory resolution to claim the high ground—and keep the story alive.

This is how, for instance, the House ended up devoting valuable time two Septembers ago to a Republican-sponsored resolution that chastised the liberal group MoveOn for a newspaper ad that attacked General David Petraeus. Democrats at first tried to keep the resolution from the floor, but when the G.O.P. circumnavigated them, Democrats (for the most part) gave in and voted for the resolution, not wanting to give their opponents any more ammunition.

Now, it’s the Democrats’ turn. Wilson’s behavior during Obama’s speech was almost universally offensive to the independent voters both parties covet; even in Wilson’s conservative South Carolina district, public opinion was running more than two-to-one against his outburst as of last Friday.

And Wilson, after initially apologizing last Wednesday night (an apology, as he noted on Sunday, that Obama was quick to accept), has almost been daring Democrats to act. Instead of keeping quiet in shame or simply repeating his apology, Wilson launched a mini-media tour that called into question the depth and sincerity of his contrition and began raising big bucks from sympathizers on the right. This gave Democrats the latitude they needed to issue their ultimatum.

What will be interesting to watch this week is how the House G.O.P. leadership handles this. Here, a parallel can be drawn to the 2006 case of Cynthia McKinney, then a Democratic congresswoman from Georgia, who had an altercation with a police officer in the Longfellow House Office Building.

It began when the officer, who was manning a magnetometer that tourists and other visitors must pass through, didn’t recognize McKinney as she walked around the machine (member of Congress don’t have to pas through it). He told her to stop. She refused. He tried to restrain her. She began shouting, hit him with her cell phone, and later pronounced herself a victim of racial profiling.

Like the Wilson saga, the story became a national sensation, with public opinion breaking strongly against McKinney. Republicans, recognizing the same political opening Democrats now want to exploit, castigated her and introduced a resolution praising the Capitol police force for its service and professionalism.

“'I don't think it's fair to attack the Capitol Police, and I think it's time that we show our support for them,” North Carolina Republican Patrick McHenry, who introduced the resolution, declared.

Democrats saw no political value in sticking up for McKinney or fighting the resolution. For one thing, McKinney was already a loner in the caucus, having been driven out of office in a contentious 2002 primary only to return in an upset two years later. She had no relationship with then-minority leader Nancy Pelosi (who, in a break from her customary secrecy, leaked word to reporters that she hadn’t even spoken with McKinney in months).

So even though racial profiling was and is a sensitive issue to a major component of the Democratic base, Pelosi had cover to throw McKinney under the bus, since even members of the Congressional Black Caucus—most notably Charlie Rangel and John Lewis—had little regard for McKinney and weren’t willing to expend capital sticking up for her.

Ultimately, Pelosi enlisted several C.B.C. members to demand an apology on the House floor from McKinney, who finally complied a week after the incident with the officer. During her apology, she also announced that she’d support the G.O.P.’s resolution, which then passed unanimously. From a national standpoint, the issue was then dropped and forgotten (although McKinney lost her seat to Hank Johnson in that summer’s Democratic primary largely because of it).

Wilson, though, occupies a more secure, mainstream place within the House G.O.P. ranks. And conservative activists, egged on by Rush Limbaugh and other media voices, have rallied around him. Republican leaders don’t have the breathing room to deal with Wilson that Democrats enjoyed with McKinney.

This explains why, for example, Minority Leader John Boehner has made sure to vouch for the argument, such as it is, that Wilson was trying to express with his outburst. Wilson may be causing Republicans headaches when it comes to their image with independent voters, but to give him the McKinney treatment would be to risk an insurrection from what today is a particularly angry and exercised base.

Most likely, G.O.P. leaders will simply decry the Democratic resolution as a transparently political act that’s unnecessary because Wilson has already apologized. This probably won’t cause them much (more) grief with independent voters, but Wilson’s sudden sacred cow status is yet another small illustration of how a shrunken, irrational base is preventing the Republican Party from rebuilding itself.