Pants Still on Fire

Calling the president a liar has been good for Joe Wilson’s career. But is it good for the GOP?

Rep. Joe Wilson

As soon as the words “You lie!” left Rep. Joe Wilson’s lips during the president’s September address to the joint session of Congress, the question was not so much, Will this hurt Joe Wilson? It was, How much will this hurt Joe Wilson? Two months later, the answer is decisive: not at all. If anything, it’s helping him. Wilson has been enjoying the fruits of his outburst—namely cash, respect, and a glut of attention as a spokesman for the not-gonna-take-it-anymore wing of the Republican Party. The question has now become, Is this helping or hurting the party?

The South Carolina congressman pulled in nearly $2.7 million in the third quarter of 2009 in the wake of the scandal, his apology to President Obama, and his congressional wrist slap. (More than 75 percent of the cash came from out of state.) His opponent for 2010, Rob Miller, reaped a solid $1.7 million and eked out Wilson in the post-explosion polls. But since then, we’ve heard little from Miller and a lot from Wilson.

Exhibit A, his recent comments on health care. Wilson described last Thursday, when House Democrats released their health care bill, as the “darkest day in Congress.” Instead, he has been touting the Republicans’ alternative bill, which would help protect doctors from lawsuits, prohibit the use of funds for abortions, and give people tax credits to buy health insurance on their own. He’s also been vocal on the topic of swine flu. In an interview with CNS News, he said that President Obama should be held “solely responsible” for the national shortage of H1N1 vaccines. (Wilson’s wife was diagnosed with swine flu in mid-October.)

Meanwhile, Wilson has been on the road. Over the weekend, he stumped for New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie in Morristown, N.J., at an event organized by the group NJTeaParty. Wilson didn’t accept a speaking fee, the organizer told me in an e-mail. Rather, he came “because he is a Patriot and a Hell of a decent guy!”

The only problem: Christie wasn’t there. The Republican candidate was holding a separate event two miles away. When asked why he didn’t stop by the Wilson event, Christie joked that he didn’t want to give Democrats a photo-op. “I had people waiting for me here,” he said. Christie distanced himself from Wilson again Monday on Fox News: “No, there was no campaigning with Joe Wilson,” he said. “I didn’t see him. I heard he was in Morristown—we had a separate event in another part of Morristown. There was no campaigning with Joe Wilson yesterday.”

Christie has not explicitly rejected Wilson’s endorsement. But his reluctance to accept it is a sign of just how radioactive Wilson still is to moderate Republicans. (Christie isn’t exactly a centrist, but he did beat out conservative Steve Lonegan in the primary.) While Wilson’s become a symbol of the revolution on the right, the mainline GOP sees him as a crank. (Remember how quickly the leadership pushed him to apologize for his outcry?)

Wilson’s in good company, to be sure. He’s just one of many members of Congress to flame their way to fame, including Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn.; Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla.; and Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif. But his personal success—and that of his vocal compatriots on the right—does not necessarily reflect good times for his party as a whole. While an increasing number of Americans identify as conservative, the portion who consider themselves Republicans has decreased to 20 percent—the lowest percentage in more than two decades.

The reason for the slippage among GOP identification is up for debate. Moderates argue it’s because the party is too conservative. Conservatives hold that it’s because the party isn’t conservative enough. It’s impossible to say whether the success of firebrands like Wilson is causing the party’s declining popularity. But the correlation is clearly strong enough to make vulnerable Republican candidates keep their distance.