Why Obama Should Have Been Lying

11/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What is it with guys named Joe Wilson?

The last time anyone publicly called the president of the United States a liar, it was a guy named Joe Wilson. But that Joe Wilson--a career diplomat with extensive experience in both Iraq and Africa--didn't literally say the president lied.

In an op-ed for the Sunday New York Times on July 6, 2003, he simply presented evidence that undermined President Bush's claim--in his January State of the Union Address--that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium from the African nation of Niger.

Whether or not Bush believed this at the time, or had reason to believe a report that he attributed to "the British Government," his claim was never substantiated and his White House long ago conceded that he never should have made it. (For more on this, see Consequently, in spite of Dick Cheney's efforts to discredit Wilson personally and in spite of Cheney's highly probable involvement in the "outing" of Wilson's wife Valerie Plame as a CIA agent, it is Wilson's argument--not the president's claim--that has plainly stood the test of time.

Fast forward to the evening of Wednesday, September 9, 2009, when President Barack Obama addressed a joint session of Congress. In response to the president's statement that his new plan for health care insurance would not "insure illegal immigrants," Congressman Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted, "You lie!"

Unlike the other Joe Wilson, this one presented not one shred of evidence to support his claim, and as many people quickly noted, the bill itself explicitly forbids any federal payments "on behalf of individuals who are not lawfully in the United States." In other words, this Joe Wilson was himself lying about the bill. But in spite of that, and even though he has been made to apologize for the incivility of his outburst, he and other Republicans remain unhappy that the bill does not do more to stigmatize illegal aliens. Furthermore, Wilson is using the whole episode to dramatize his credentials as a Congressman who dares to challenge the president--and thus to raise money for his re-election.

Evidently he'll need it. His opponent for the next election, Democrat Rob Miller, is already profiting from Wilson's gaffe. Since Wilson's outburst, Miller's campaign has reaped more than $750,000 from 20,000 contributors. But handicappers who rate this whole episode a big win for Obama and his party overlook one simple fact. While Obama wasn't lying about his bill, what he said should have been false.

Consider again what he truthfully said about the bill: it offers nothing to illegal immigrants, which means, of course, nothing for their children either. To get this bill passed, the President of the Democratic Party--the party that cares about ordinary people, regardless of race, religion, or ethnic background--has to assure everyone that the bill provides not one penny to treat any child who has the bad luck to have been born from illegal immigrants. If your parents are illegal, says the bill, we don't care how sick you get, or even if you die. The federal government won't spend one cent on you. And this is a Democratic bill championed by a Democratic president?

Nothing else in the bill more clearly shows what a hammerlock the Republican right has placed on the neck of our compassion. If Justice Sonia Sotomayor can be scolded for judging her cases in a spirit of "empathy," compassion--one degree beyond empathy--has become, for the Right, an object of withering scorn.

And, of course, the Right has also raised its ideology to a new level of self-contradiction. While the fetus--a.k.a. the unborn child--deserves all the rights of a person because innocent life must be protected at all costs, the fully born and living child of an illegal immigrant has no rights at all in this nation of immigrants because it is not innocent at all. It's guilty of having been born to the wrong people.

Yes, yes, I know all the arguments for Obama's position. I know that politics is the art of the possible, and that passage of this bill without a ban on benefits for illegals is quite simply impossible. But I cannot let this episode pass without asking that all of us who consider ourselves progressive recognize what we are doing when we score one for the president on this issue. The real winner here is not the president. It's the heartlessness of the xenophobic, hypocritically family-valuing Republican Right.