I'm not all that upset by Representative Joe Wilson's "You're a liar!" outburst during Wednesday's speech by President Obama. It's a free country with the right to speak... and yeah, I guess that includes yelling at the President while he's giving a speech. You're free to do it, that's for sure.
It's also rude, and really kind of inappropriate.
That Republicans and conservatives can't decide whether to be happy or upset about Wilson is a reminder, really, of what a mess they're in as a party. As much as Wilson managed to hijack the coverage of the speech (which, yes, I think was very well done), and probably pressed the hot button of health insurance for illegal immigrants, after 8 years of complaining that President Bush was thoroughly disrespected by liberals, and that's bad... suddenly Wilson, you know... was probably just "speaking truth to power."
I tend to think this reflexive "you have to show respect for the presidency" stuff is a bit overblown; one of our great distinguishing aspects, as Americans, is that the President is one of us, not better than all of us. He's picked by us, from among us, and he remains one of us. All men - all of us - are created equal. If we're equal, then the level of respect we're looking for is the common decency you show others, not some magical extra special respect or reverence. It's an aspect of conservatism - the reflexive genuflecting to the notion of your "betters" by title or social class - that I think liberals, in our far more egalitarian notions of these things, pretty much reject outright.
Still, the point is that Wilson's outburst wasn't some blot on the Presidency... it's that, common decency and rude behavior are inappropriate on a solemn occasion. It's happening more and more, particularly as the outlandish charges and pointless debates wail on. It's the nonsense of the "birther" movement and the fact that Republicans can't simply set it aside. And much more. That the right - still - can't draw a line and call something out of bounds, even something as basic as, well, an inappropriately rude outburst, reflects how deeply they've failed to center themselves around mutual, basic principles of civil discourse, debate over actual issues, or proposals that are focused on improving the common good. This is childish, we can't back down, every tantrum gets to be shouted and yelled and pushed around. And it leads... basically, to chaos.
The really smart move, I think, which would have catapulted Wilson to a new kind of leadership within the GOP would have been for the man himself to draw the line. If Wilson came to the microphone, called himself out for being inappropriate, said something to the effect of "we can have disagreements, but we should do it with some basic level of decency and respect" and taken responsibility for lowering our discourse... I think he'd have shown remarkable, hard to argue with moxie. Chances are, privately, he knows it was a bit much and probably went too far. But backing down? Heck no... that's weak. And so he sort of apologized, now sort of took it back, and gets to be a conservative hero... even as his days in Congress may well be numbered.
Joe Wilson doesn't have to apologize. The Presidency will not rise or fall on the basis of a heated, and fairly foolish, outburst in a joint session of Congress. Nor is the point here, really, about debating the semantics of prohibiting illegal immigrants from having health insurance - like most of the immigration debate, there's more heat than light in this charge, and serious consideration of immigration reforms is about a lot more than health insurance, anyway. But then... these are not serious people. If they were, someone would know enough to draw a line, and say Wilson crossed it. And then, they'd leave him on the other side, to battle it out alone.