So You Think You Can Shout

On Wednesday night, during the commercial breaks of “So You Think You Can Dance,” I caught a few minutes of U.S. President Barack Obama delivering perhaps the finest speech he’s ever given. The jury is still out on whether his leave-it-to-Congress strategy was the smart way to go about reforming America’s dysfunctional health-care system, but there is little question that in his speech he assumed leadership over the nearly century-long effort to provide health insurance to every American man, woman, and child. Sometime in the very near future, Obama will be able to lay claim to fixing health care.

Whatever your feelings about his politics, you can’t accuse Obama of shying away from complex or contentious issues in his speech. By contrast to the Republican response, which treated its audience like a bunch of third graders, Obama spoke candidly about the public option, tort reform, and acrimony in Washington. He hit all the right notes when speaking about the proper role of government in America, dropping his Post Office versus FedEx analogy to justify the public option in favor of a comparison that likens the public option to public universities.

And yet, despite how great his speech was, it’s surprising that the most important sound bite wasn’t his own. The line that has been repeated over and over on cable news for the last two days belongs to Joe Wilson.

Wait, who the f*** is Joe Wilson?

Wilson is the South Carolina Republican congressman who shrieked out “You lie!” just as the president was chastising Republicans for their venomous partisanship throughout the health-care debate. At the urging of the Republican leadership, though much to the regret of Rush Limbaugh, Wilson apologized to the president almost immediately following the comment. But the damage had been done. For any centrist or fence-sitter watching at home, Wilson’s outburst confirmed that Republicans have nothing else in mind than to kill the health-care bill for purely political reasons. His comment galvanized fiscally conservative Democrats to support the president’s bill and heightened the sense of despondency among those Republican congressmen and senators who BBMed and Tweeted on their BlackBerries throughout the speech.

But what’s most amazing to me as a young person trying to make sense out of the health-care saga is that, basically overnight, Joe Wilson made himself a central player in the health-care debate. His name may fade from the front pages in a couple of days, but his outburst will have left an indelible mark on the process.

Why is it so amazing to me that one comment out of left field could have such a strong impact on the health-care debate? Because reforming health care is an extremely complex process that involves vast sums of money and influence peddled by huge industries and massive institutions. It seems unlikely or perhaps incorrect that a marginal individual like Wilson could have such a significant impact on the process. But this is the lesson that the Joe Wilson incident teaches us. The outcome of this plan turns on the actions of just a few individuals. Wilson may never be more than a footnote in the story of how Barack Obama passed health-care reform, but so much of the outcome will be determined by equally unlikely heroes. Who would have imagined that Max Baucus, the fiscally conservative Democratic senator from Montana, would one day be leading Democratic efforts in the upper chamber? Or that Kathleen Sebelius, a former governor of Kansas, would effectively serve as the White House’s health-care czar? Both of those jobs had been more or less reserved for Ted Kennedy ’54-’56 and Tom Daschle respectively, who would have been stronger proponents of a more liberal bill and tougher negotiators with Republicans. How different would the course of health care been under their leadership?

That isn’t to say it all comes down to personalities; once-in-a-generation issues like health care are still shaped by the special-interest groups in question—in this case, the pharmaceutical industry, doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies. But it’s important to recognize that, a year ago, you could never have predicted that many of the political players currently involved would be leading the charge on health care. Who knows exactly what effect this will have on the final outcome. But Wilson, the most prominent Joe since Joe the Plumber, will have left his mark.

Clay A. Dumas ’10, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House.