Today, after a flurry of media questions about the identity of the shouter, GOP Texas Rep. Randy Neugebauer stepped forward as the offending shouter—though he stipulated he actually shouted, "It's a baby killer," in reference to the unamended health care bill, and has since apologized to Stupak for any suggestion that he personally was responsible for the killing of babies.
Neugebauer's confession will help speed the episode's exit from the news cycle—particularly once President Obama signs the health care bill into law and Congress moves on to fresh controversies. But the "Baby killer!" furor highlights a far more serious, long-term political dilemma for the Republicans: how to appear to be a respectable party capable of governing while also providing political shelter for the highly motivated, though vocally disruptive, protest wing of the party associated with the Tea Party movement. While many commentators are forecasting trouble ahead for Democrats identified with the health care bill, the GOP faces some major issues of its own.
Just look at the past weekend: Thousands of Tea Party protesters descended on Washington in an attempt to "kill the bill." It was an impressive turnout for a quickly organized protest—but coverage of the event soon was dominated by reports that some demonstrators had hurled racial and homophobic epithets at Democratic lawmakers as they entered the Capitol.
Nor were the passionate displays limited to the protestors outside. Even after admonishing members of his caucus to "behave like grown-ups" during the epic health care floor debate, Majority Leader John Boehner let loose with a cry of "Hell no!" in his own fiery floor speech denouncing the Democrats' handling of the legislative process.
Also noteworthy: Kentucky Congressman Geoff Davis unveiled a flag on the Capitol balcony featuring the "Don't Tread on Me" slogan famously used by past revolutionary militia groups.
The alliance between conservative lawmakers and movement activists was sealed in the wake of Rep. Joe Wilson's now-famous "You lie!" shout during an address by President Obama to both chambers of Congress. The incident earned some tut-tutting from party and congressional leaders, but Wilson saw his fundraising numbers skyrocket with Tea Party donations after his outburst on the floor. Additionally, Wilson's Senate colleague from South Carolina, Jim DeMint—who authored a book denouncing "America's slide into socialism"—also sought to amp up activist support with the challenge to make health care into the Obama administration's Waterloo, an assertion the left is having some fun with on his Facebook page today.
But one prominent conservative commentator—former Bush speechwriter David Frum—argues that last night's vote was an enormous political reversal for Republicans. Saying that the Republicans went for "all the marbles" by unanimously opposing the bill and refusing to compromise in any way—fueling activist fury at the same time—he writes:
So today's defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry. Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio. For them, it's mission accomplished. For the cause they purport to represent, it's Waterloo all right: ours.
Frum's assessment actually echoes a warning call that conservative writer William Kristol advanced in a famous memo preaching hard opposition to President Clinton's 1993 health care reform bill. Kristol then cautioned that party leaders couldn't afford to let any version of the measure pass, lest the provisions of the bill create powerful new political alliances for the Democrats, as had happened after the passage of Social Security and Medicare in prior battles over federal entitlements. (It should be noted that this morning Kristol appears to be backing away from his past prediction of GOP doom and gloom if the Democrats successfully passed health care reform.)
Kristol's strategy of going all-in on opposing health care proved a political winner then: GOP opposition—combined with internal Democratic political tensions—defeated Clinton's bill and set the stage for the 1994 Republican Revolution. In losing the vote this time out via a strategy of strict opposition, Frum argues that the GOP has left itself little in the way of legislative achievement to run on in future campaigns, an assessment at least one other conservative commentator agrees with. Liberal pundits, meanwhile, are offering tongue-in-cheek accolades to the "unsung hero of comprehensive reform": Republican leaders who refused to work to make the bill more moderate, thus unifying the fractious Democrats.
In many ways, the dilemma faced by modern Republicans is similar to the one Democrats faced in the '60s and '70s with the Vietnam-era anti-war movement. While the confrontation-minded (and media-friendly) activists garnered headlines and caused widespread disruption, the Democrats succumbed to damaging leadership divisions on the war—and in the process, allowed Republicans to tag them with sinister hippie and New Left leanings ever since. The challenge for Republicans going forward is to avoid the same undertow from their activist base—to establish majorities in Washington and not let the unsavory aspects of the fringe haunt them for decades to come.
In the short term, though, the GOP doesn't seem to be in much of a mood for introspection—at least not to judge by the remarks of the party's 2008 standard bearer, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who had previously made a mark as a compromise-minded lawmaker. "There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year," McCain said during an interview with The Hill. "[The Democrats] have poisoned the well in what they've done and how they've done it."
Immature, butthurt, crybaby, etc...etc..etc..