By Nick Hildebrand
Last week U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly's rousing, anti-regulation rant on the House floor earned him a standing ovation, a string of guest spots on Fox News, hundreds of positive comments on Facebook, and a shout out from Rush Limbaugh himself.
The impassioned speech catapulted Kelly, already one of the "most covered" members of the Republican freshman class, into a new realm of political stardom, with some fans suggesting Mitt Romney should consider the Butler County car dealer for the veep spot and others talking about "President Kelly."
Fox Business host Neil Cavuto gushed: "Man, oh man, I think a star was just born there."
But you know what they say about what goes up.
On Wednesday afternoon, Kelly and other Republicans gathered on the steps of the Capitol to decry the implementation of the Obamacare provision that requires employers to cover a variety of women's health care needs, including contraception. The controversial mandate is seen by many on the right as a violation of the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion, since it applies to nearly all employers, including those who oppose contraception on religious grounds. Others see it as a simple matter of accomplishing one goal of a health care reform law that's been declared constitutional: full and fair coverage of necessary medical care.
Kelly, a Catholic, described it as "the day religious freedom died."
That kind of rhetoric isn't unusual in this day and age and if he left it at that, no one probably would have noticed. But Kelly, whose bombastic speaking style is part of his appeal and seems to have internalized the famous Goldwater maxim about extremism and liberty, took it up a notch.
"I know in your mind, you can think of the times America was attacked. One is Dec. 7, that's Pearl Harbor Day. The other is Sept. 11, and that's the day the terrorists attacked. I want you to remember Aug. 1, 2012, the attack on our religious freedom. That is a day that will live in infamy, along with those other dates."
Cue the you-know-what storm.
Critics called the comparison insensitive and offensive. The usual suspects jumped first. Kelly's comments went to the top of the liberal Huffington Post's website, along with demands from Democrats that he apologize for equating the mandate, which also requires coverage of cancer screenings, gestational diabetes testing, HIV and STD screenings and other potentially life-saving procedures, with violent attacks on the United States that left thousands dead.
Democrat Rep. Jerry Nadler, who represents parts of New York City, called Kelly's rhetoric "beyond outrageous" and said: "To drag the memories of those lost and those still grieving into the culture wars is unforgivable. And to equate those terrible attacks with the safe and legal availability of contraception for women -- ostensibly to score political points -- is stunning."
The leftist pundits on MSNBC tag-teamed Kelly, bashing his comment on each of its evening opinion shows. Rachel Maddow described it as "a quote that will live in infamy" and Lawrence O'Donnell described Kelly as "bat-crap crazy." One blogger dubbed Kelly the "the dumbest congressman ever."
That was tame compared to the bile that social media users unloaded on Kelly's Facebook page, where hundreds of comments were logged, nearly all of them opposed to Kelly's comparison. The congressman was called an idiot, a misogynist, a theocrat and worse.
Kelly isn't the first conservative politician to earn the scorn of liberals over the use of colorful and perhaps hysterical rhetoric. He won't have to look far for someone to commiserate with, though he may want to talk to Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, who also used the Sept. 11 comparison when the Supreme Court upheld the health care law. When the media picked up on the comment, Pence immediately apologized and called his remark "thoughtless."
Mercer County's congressman has made a name for himself as much for his rhetoric as anything he's done since taking office 19 months ago. He's a great talker and forceful proponent of smaller, less-intrusive government. He says what he thinks and that's nothing to be ashamed of, even if you disagree with him.
His remarkable speech on the House floor a week ago is a good example of what Kelly gets right about political speechifying. He attacked regulation and red tape, declaring them job killers.
"You want to know the price of regulation? ... You want to talk about creating jobs in America? ... Then let them rise. Take the heavy boot off the throat of America's job creators and let them breathe!" Kelly said. "The jobs we are talking about are not red jobs or blue jobs - they are red, white and blue jobs. They are not Democrat jobs or Republican jobs or independent jobs or libertarian jobs - they are American jobs."
That's the kind of red meat that has made Kelly a tea party icon. His remarks on the Capitol steps Wednesday threaten to make him a tea party cartoon. That's not good for Kelly and it's worse for the people he represents. Like the jobs he wants to protect and help create through his legislative work, Kelly's constituents are more than their political affiliations and while some may hail the congressman's dogged defense of religious liberty, others see it as reactionary, counterproductive and, yes, offensive.
I wouldn't presume to join the chorus demanding Kelly apologize for comparing a federal regulation to mass murder. I've got kids and I know how insincere and ineffective apologies made under those conditions can be. But I've also found myself in the position of being offensive and insensitive, and when I am, I know what I should do.
Nick Hildebrand is The Herald's news editor/weekends. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published Aug. 8, 2012, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.