Why Joe Wilson Will Probably Outlive His National Embarrassment

Democrats shouldn’t get too excited about a new poll that shows South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson suddenly trailing Democrat Rob Miller, his once and future opponent, by one point in a 2010 trial heat.

For one thing, the poll was conducted by the Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling. That doesn’t mean the numbers are cooked, but it would be more significant if the figures were being released by a nonpartisan pollster.

But let’s take the PPP findings at face value. Maybe Wilson, who was re-elected last fall over Miller by a 54-46 percent margin, really does now trail 44 to 43 percent. That’s not exactly hard to believe, given the coast-to-coast grief Wilson has faced for shouting “You lie!” at President Obama on Wednesday.

Even so, there’s reason to believe that Miller’s surge is mainly a temporary reaction to what has to be the worst press Wilson has ever received, and that it will begin to ebb once the media moves on in a few days. After all, there will be about 5,400 other Major Controversies between now and November 2010, so by then Wilson’s outburst probably won’t resonate with anything near the force it now does.

Democrats are making much of the fact that Wilson was held to 54 percent in 2008—as if the 46 percent that Miller received in that race represents his starting point for the 2010 rematch. But 2010 will be a much different political year, in ways that are almost all bad for Democrats.

There won’t be a Republican White House to rail against and the Bush bogeyman will be gone. Instead, the midterm election will be a referendum on Obama’s first two years, which—historically speaking—is almost automatically bad news for Democrats. And if the economy is still feeble (or if it still feels feeble to voters, which it probably will), the damage could be worse than usual.

Plus, the Democrats’ performance in South Carolina—and in Wilson’s own solidly Republican 2nd District—in ’08 was helped by the presence of Obama, who stirred unusually high turnout among blacks and younger voters. Try as they might, Democrats will not be able to replicate that dynamic in ’10.

The perfect storm metaphor is overused, but it applies in describing the conditions for Democrats in ‘08. Everything that could go right went right—and in Wilson’s district, that translated into 46 percent of the vote for the Democratic House challenger.

Wilson’s eruption will cost him, to be sure. Miller has already raised more than $750,000 from it, so he’ll be able to run a credible campaign. But Wilson is also taking in big money from the right, which is mobilizing in response to the Democrats’ outrage. In the end, whatever damage to Wilson remains from this week will probably be canceled out by the altered dynamics of next fall’s political landscape.

A helpful parallel can be drawn to Ohio’s “Mean” Jean Schmidt, the Republican congresswoman who most recently made news for telling a birther that she agrees with her. It was only the latest in a string of embarrassments for Schmidt since her election to the House in a 2005 special election.

Her lowest moment, though, came in December 2005, when in a debate over the Iraq war she essentially called John Murtha, a decorated former Marine, a coward. A fight nearly broke on the floor of the House and Schmidt was forced to apologize. It made national news. Just like now, Democrats smelled blood. But even in 2006 and 2008, about as favorable years as Democrats will ever see, they couldn’t quite beat her. Her district was just too Republican.

Wilson’s district is slightly less Republican, but 2010 will be more favorable to the G.O.P. than ’06 and ’08 were. In other words, if Mean Jean managed to survive, Joe Wilson probably will too.