Class means never having to say you’re sorry

Republican Obstructionistos at Obama’s health care address to Congress demonstrated that the obnoxious, ill-informed and junior-high tactics of this summer’s disrupted town hall meetings are not just outbursts of Glenn Beck’s torch-and-pitchfork crowd. The GOP leaders of this country pouted, held up signs, booed and even heckled President Obama in what many observers bemoan as the worst public treatment of an American president in living memory.

Then, in a surprise move for Republicans, Joe Wilson, the South Carolina representative who yelled “you lie!” in the middle of Obama’s speech, promptly apologized for his behavior.

Just as we search the tea leaves (not parties!) in the hopes of finding the “bottom” of the foreclosure mess or unemployment rates, we wonder if Wilson’s outbrust marks the nadir of right-wing bad behavior. Could it be that the spectacle of all those suits chewing on their tongues while Obama identified and dispelled one popular lie after another could finally make right wingers recognize how foolish they appear before the entire country? Could such a realization lead to a change of behavior—something more like the discourse needed to solve this country’s problems?

Wilson’s apology sparks a brief moment of progressive fantasizing. What if Republicans everywhere started recognizing the harm they’ve wreaked on this country and began apologizing for it? “Hey guys, we messed up. Sorry about this economic collapse our tax-breaks-to-the-rich, no-bid-military-contract spending, deregulated market policies brought on. Guess our emotions got the best of us. What can we do to fix it? Oh yeah, work with the president and Democrats, yeah, we could do that.”

Fantasy over—that’s not how or why hardcore Republicans apologize. When they do, which is rarely, it’s over personal transgressions like our own Sen. John Ensign’s apology for his affair with aide Cynthia Hampton, not over the impact of their policy decisions on the country. Ensign, a member of the Washington, D.C., Christian group the Family, apologized in the manner of a religious confession to seek reaffirmation from his powerful conservative colleagues, which was readily granted. These are the kinds of apologies that allow the transgressions to continue, not the kind that signal a real change of heart or behavior.

In another case where conservative strategies may backfire, Glenn Beck’s successful witch hunt against green-collar jobs advocate Van Jones simultaneously launched Jones into national fame while exposing Beck’s own role in right-wing campaigns to undermine the climate bill. Out from under the obscurity of his desk job in the Obama administration, Jones can return to his role as a brilliant advocate for programs that solve multiple problems simultaneously. His most famous project, Green For All, retrains formerly unemployed skilled workers for jobs in the green economy—simultaneously rebuilding the urban middle class, reducing fossil fuel dependence, and creating a permanent job pool for aspiring youth. Yeah, that’s definitely the kind of guy you don’t want talking to your kids—him and the president of the United States.

But that positive spin on things doesn’t change the fact that Beck was able to bring down a White House official through his McCarthyesque smear campaign of lies and hyped-up innuendo. To Beck and those who follow him, Jones’ resignation is evidence of the power of the media lynch mob. As blogger Mark Kleiman wrote, “If you want to say batshit-crazy stuff and still be treated as a respectable participant in the national debate, you’d better be a Republican.” I know Obama needed to focus on health care, but I wish he would have stood up for Jones, called out Fox News on its crazy talk, and opened up a can of whoop-ass on Wilson and his buddies in that address. But that’s just me fantasizing again—this time that the Democrats could snag a bit of unapologetic pride, and some spine, from their frenemies on the Right.