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Published:September 17th, 2009 14:44 EST
Rep. Joe Wilson, Hero of the Right and Left?

Rep. Joe Wilson, Hero of the Right and Left?

By Geoff Dean

Representative Joe Wilson, until quite recently a fairly obscure congressperson from South Carolina, a fairly obscure state, is everywhere. Not too bad for only saying two words, I suppose.

SC Representative Joe Wilson

Former President Jimmy Carter among others has called him and his interruption heard round the world as racist, declaring that no one in either party had ever heckled a white president of the other, mid-speech. Now, we have a southern "gentleman" calling an African American president a liar and not even waiting for the president to finish speaking.

Rep. Wilson`s son, among others, has responded that there is "not a racist bone" in Rep. Wilson`s body, white though they all may be. GOP leaders have rushed to semi-defend the outburst, claiming that while inappropriate, it was understandable, considering the emotions involved. Presumably, any time a debate gets emotional, as most do nowadays, heckling will be considered acceptable from this point forward.

Still others, such as Sen. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, while calling Wilson a "jerk", have refused to label him a racist and vote for him to be reprimanded.

So, is Joe Wilson, a racist? A jerk? A man expressing himself, covered by freedom of speech? How in the (expletive deleted) should I or anyone else know?

What I do know is that he has been, as Peter Wallsten put it in the Los Angeles Times recently, "lionized" by the right, a kind of folk hero. Being reprimanded by Congress and refusing to apologize there, claiming a direct apology to the President should suffice, has only made him more beloved in the eyes of his supporters. Each attack by Carter and others serves to merely enhance his position.

Why would the Democrats fall into the trap of "making a martyr" out of Rep. Wilson? Perhaps, they are so upset that they didn`t consider the consequences. Perhaps, they are so inept that they never realized that a reprimand would only burnish his status among those who think as he does. Or perhaps, just perhaps, the Democrats want a "lionized" Joe Wilson. And the GOP leaders don`t.

Think about it. You have the contrast of a calm, articulate (that word again!), informed President Obama calling for bipartisanship with Rep. Wilson`s disrespectful interruption. Regardless of who is right or wrong, the contrast makes the Democrats look professional and the GOP look irrational and paranoid. Playing up Joe Wilson, trying to make him the face of the GOP, is an excellent strategy for the Democrats. And it dovetails perfectly with the increasing flood of conspiracy theories, the Obama is a foreigner, Obama is a Muslim, Obama is a Communist, Obama is a Nazi, Obama is the antichrist perspective. Only now it is not "crackpots" as John McCain`s former spokesman, Michael Goldfarb, referred to them, outside the establishment, at rallies or on extremist radio programs, but in Congress, inside the party, among the politicians.

A wise Democratic party will do all it can to play up statements by Sarah Palin on "death panels" and Rush Limbaugh on anything he says and the Joe Wilson outburst. A fired up Republican base could be a godsend; remember the fired up Clinton-haters and the impeachment?

Wise GOP leaders (some still remain) and elders like David Frum and Jon Henke have come out to criticize these "fringe" elements who threaten to turn the GOP into the Group Of the Paranoid. They realize that the end result could be a party with a highly motivated but ever dwindling core of true believers and a Democratic party that stakes out the entire center of the spectrum.

 Michael Goldfarb responds that there is no need to worry. When the time comes, the "crackpots" can be marginalized. Maybe so, but not if the Democrats can help it.