The Pros and Cons of Hissy Fits

By Daniel Libit
|  Thursday, Oct 1, 2009  |  Updated 4:27 AM EDT
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Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) got a week's worth of coverage for his outburst. You gotta do a lot worse now for that kind of play.

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In the course of 24 hours this week, a viral Web video portrayed a Republican congressman calling the president the “enemy of humanity,” a Democratic congressman warned sick people that Republicans “want you to die quickly,” and a New York Times columnist suggested that all the hot talk might lead to acts of violence.

To which the chairman of the Republican National Committee replied: “Nut job.”

We’re in the midst of what Brookings Institution’s Darrell West calls an “arms race of incendiary rhetoric,” and it’s quickly reaching the point of mutually assured destruction.

“The problem with this strategy,” says Princeton professor Julian Zelizer, “is if it is used repeatedly, one person just bumps the other, and people won’t pay attention after a while. Dramatic theatrics work only if they are relatively rare. If everyone was screaming at the president, we [wouldn’t] think of it much.”

When Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted out “You lie!” during President Barack Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress last month, the resulting back and forth got him a week in the cable news spotlight and enduring fame as a powerful Republican fundraiser.

But when The Huffington Post posted video Tuesday of Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) calling Obama an “enemy of humanity” for his abortion-rights views, his fame — or infamy — was fleeting. As Franks’s office tried to explain away his comments — he meant to say “enemy of unborn humanity” — Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) was busy upstaging him, taking to the House floor to say that the GOP’s health plan was for sick people to “die quickly.”

By Wednesday morning, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) — who cried “Poison!” when Democrats moved to censure Wilson — had drafted a resolution condemning Grayson.

And by Wednesday afternoon, Grayson — who voted in favor of censuring Wilson — was back on the House floor pouring gasoline on the fire.

 

Grayson said he was ready to apologize — not for the “die quickly” line but for Congress’s failure to pass health care reform. “I apologize to the dead and their families that we haven’t voted sooner to end this holocaust in America,” he said. “I yield the rest of my time.”

But with the pace at which things are proceeding, that choice wasn’t really his to make.

“We have gone from 15 minutes of fame to 15 seconds of fame,” said Michael Franc, a former Republican leadership aide who now serves as vice president for The Heritage Foundation.

Voters and cable news watchers barely have a moment to take stock of one piece of controversy before, inevitably, another politician steals the show.

The upside for politicians like Franks, who insists that both his “enemy of humanity” remark and Wilson’s “You lie!” were misunderstood: The sting of the rhetoric may not last as long as it once did.

The downside for politicians like Grayson, whose pre-printed “Die quickly” poster robbed him of the right to claim a mistake: The window for cashing in may no longer stay open as long as it has for Wilson — and it’s going to be tougher to crack open to begin with.

It is a little bit like pornography,” says former presidential adviser David Gergen. “If people are going to start engaging in soft porn in order to get attention, you are going to have to go harder and harder, until eventually we all say we’d like something more virtuous.”

But there’s a difference between saying we’d like something more virtuous and actually liking something more virtuous. And in an era of polarizing politicians covered by polarized media — MSNBC’s hero is Fox’s goat — it’s a safe bet that harsh words will trump respectability for the time being.

Or, as Gergen puts it: “Because there is so much hunger for red meat in the bases of each party, and people are looking for someone to throw them a piece, you get a short-term benefit from going after the other side with certain colorful viciousness.”

 

“I don’t see a whole lot of signs that the public is tired of it,” says former Republican Rep. Mickey Edwards, now a lecturer at Princeton University. “Sure, some people are. My guess is Democrats attacking Republicans are going to get the cheers from the far left. It is like anything else, the whole capitalist system — if a product sells, you produce more of it.”

Even as he tried to explain his “enemy of humanity” remarks this week, Franks — who calls himself a “civil, calm, collected kind of guy” — tacitly acknowledged the tension between rising above the fray and diving right into it.

He told POLITICO that neither he nor Wilson “intended for it to happen the way it did” and that it was not his “intention” to issue such an all-encompassing attack on the president. But in the same breath, he said: “I think if you care about a cause, you take every opportunity to speak to it in a way that will further that cause as best you can.”

And while Franks’s press secretary, Bethany Barker, insisted that her boss hadn’t meant to create a media frenzy with his comments, she also said that “if there was one [issue] he would create controversy around willingly, it would be around the issue of abortion.”

Although Wilson is still riding the “You lie!” wave — in recent days, he sent out e-mails on behalf of the National Republican Congressional Committee, arguing that major bills should be posted online for 72 hours before floor votes — an aide said Wednesday that he’s ready to put it all behind him. Asked about the Franks and Grayson imbroglios, Wilson press secretary Ryan Murphy said: “The congressman has kind of closed the books on the incident he [was involved in], so I think we’re going to move on there.”

But Grayson showed little interest in giving up the spotlight yet. In a call to POLITICO Wednesday evening, the congressman said that phone calls to his office have been “overwhelmingly in favor” of his comments. “I am hearing over and over again that people are glad to see someone from central Florida say it like it is.”

Grayson said he doesn’t see “any conceivable moral parallel” between his “Die quickly” and Wilson’s “You lie!” “To interrupt and insult the president while the nation is watching is appalling,” he said, and he dismissed the notion that rhetoric like his is somehow detrimental to Congress as a whole. “We cannot run this institution on the basis of Republican hissy fits,” he said.

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