Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Randy Neugebauer "Baby Killer"




Randy Neugebauer "Baby Killer" on Hot Topics -- Members of Congress were hardly more civil to each other, with one anti-abortion GOP congressman decrying the legislation by shouting "It's a baby killer" on the floor of Congress.

While the remarks were repugnant to many people, First Amendment experts say the outbursts were protected speech because they didn't inspire immediate violence, said David L. Hudson Jr., a scholar at the nonpartisan First Amendment Center in Nashville.

But the overheated rhetoric could lead to political damage for those who oppose the health care reform plan.

"They're going to lose their audience," said Phyllis Gerstenfeld, a professor of criminal justice at Cal State Stanislaus who has studied hate speech. "At this point, to get ears, they're going to have to seem sympathetic."

Added UC Berkeley linguist and author Geoffrey Nunberg: "This way of talking is not going to serve the needs of people who are trying to appeal to independent voters."

Political rhetoric has become increasingly polarized over the past two decades and took an unusually nasty tenor late in the 2008 presidential campaign.

That carried over into the health care debate beginning in 2009, from raucous Tea Party-led protests at congressional town hall meetings to Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouting "You lie!" during President Obama's health care address to Congress in September.

U.S. Rep. Randy Neugebauer of Lubbock is a banker, a quiet, polite guy who has made few waves in Congress and was little known beyond West Texas until he shouted out "baby killer" during the tense final hours of the health care debate.

"I'm just trying to represent the people of the 19th Congressional District," Neugebauer told Lubbock TV station KCBD on Monday. "The intensity of the American people was represented in my intensity last night. ... I still believe that that Senate bill is a baby-killing bill."

Neugebauer, a Republican, also denied that he was calling Democratic colleague Bart Stupak a name; he said that his full comment referred to the health care legislation itself.

But the fallout was immediate, as Neugebauer was the subject of daylong media reports and White House condemnation. His Democratic opponent called the outburst "embarrassing" both for Neugebauer and the people of West Texas. Allies called it an uncharacteristic flash of intensity from a four-term, 60-year-old Republican whose anti-abortion views run deep.

Still, no one was predicting that the otherwise mild-mannered Neugebauer would turn into quite the sort of cause célèbre as the hot-tempered Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who heckled Barack Obama as a liar during the president's speech to Congress in September.

Both Wilson and his Democratic opponent quickly raised copious sums of campaign cash after the incident. Neugebauer seemed more sheepish than defiant Monday as he confessed to being the heckler Sunday night.

He issued a written apology to the U.S. House, and he called the apparent target, Stupak, to explain himself.

Democrats viewed it as a damaging pattern of self-inflicted GOP behavior as health care came to a head, in step with racial epithets hurled at black lawmakers and anti-gay slurs aimed at Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. These comments, strategists said, kept the focus away from GOP complaints about the cost of the bill and how it was "crammed" down Americans' throats.

At the White House, press secretary Robert Gibbs chastised the heckler, even as he acknowledged that passions ran high.

"We ought to be able to have that debate without the type of language and actions that we've seen in some places over the weekend," he said.

Neugebauer cruised to re-election by a ratio of 3-1 in 2008 and ran unopposed in the GOP primary this month. This year's Democratic opponent, engineer and first-time candidate Andy Wilson, has raised less than $7,000, about 1 percent of the incumbent's war chest.

Wilson said he would have voted for the bill, adding that he finds it "ironic" that Neugebauer would shout at Stupak, who led a group of anti-abortion Democrats demanding guarantees against taxpayer support for abortion.

Lubbock County GOP chairman Chris Winn said Neugebauer has zero to fear in terms of voter backlash. Quite the contrary, he said, because the comments reflect the passions of his constituents.

"Congressman Neugebauer represents his district as a Christian conservative and has done so with a great deal of respect," Winn said. "He's a gentleman, and his words should not be taken as hateful or cruel."

Abortion foes say Neugebauer was right in saying the legislation expands the federal role in paying for and promoting abortion. At the Texas Alliance for Life, executive director Joe Pojman noted that his district is safely Republican.

"He's always been solid on life issues. ... We've always been supportive. This won't change that, obviously," Pojman said.

Neugebauer's other spotlight moment came last summer, when he backed the "birther bill" requiring presidential candidates to show proof they were born on American soil. The liberal MSNBC host Keith Olbermann called him the "Worst Person in the World" for saying he wasn't sure if Obama would qualify.

As for Stupak, he accepted the personal apology but said the breach called for a more explicit apology to the House.

"I also let him know that, while we all have had a very long week and tensions were high leading up to the vote Sunday night, I feel it is important for members to maintain decorum of the House," the Democrat said.

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