Dems Need More ‘Problem Children’ Like Alan Grayson
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Flor.) listens to Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke testify during a House committee hearing on Capitol Hill on October 1, 2009. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
By Roger Bybee
The late Saul Alinsky, the scrappy Chicagoan who translated unionizing methods into a systematic approach to community organizing, often remarked, "A liberal is the kind of guy who leaves the room when an argument turns into a fight."
Alinsky was drawing out the fundamental difference between people willing to express principles and those willing to fight for them. Of course, these days, it is clear that much of the Democratic Party, even after shedding its Dixiecrat wing, does not qualify as liberal, much less a progressive fighting force.
They won’t even get into a serious argument, much less a fight with Republicans; as Paul Krugman has pointed out, the Democrats have yet to seriously repudiate and bury trickle-down economics once and for all.
Far too many Democrats are unwilling to compell the richest 3/10 of 1% —couples earning over $1 million—to make a small contribution to national healthcare. Democrats have meekly offered a miniscule government role in healthcare rather than forcefully putting profit insurers’ advocates on the defensive.
Reforming labor law so workers can join unions without fear? Stopping the ongoing gusher of jobs headed to Mexico and China? When was the last time these were mentioned by prominent Democratic leaders?
We even have President Obama trivializing insurers’ brutal methods–while purportedly criticizing them– as mere "monkey business." "Monkey business"? That sounds as serious as a minor political sex scandal, rather than a "money business" built upon enhancing already-gigantic profits by denying needed care, even when it results in death.
In this unreal world of Democratic politics, anyone who seems like a serious fighter is depicted by even the "liberal" media as a left-wing "wingnut" comparable to Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck.
The most recent target for such labeling is Florida Rep. Alan Grayson. Grayson’s sin: He translated the Republican approach to healthcare into an issue of life or death, pointing to a recent Harvard Medical School study showing that the lack of insurance leads to nearly 45,000 needless deaths annually in the U.S.
So Grayson boiled down the Republicans’ plan to its essence. In contrast to the soft and meaningless "policy wonkery" of Obama and Co., as political linguist George Lakoff put it in a recent interview with me, Grayson "re-framed" the healthcare issue in stark but very real terms.
In a bold speech on the House floor, Grayson cited the 45,000 annual deaths and explained that the Republican approach to healthcare, “If you get sick, America, the Republicans’ health care plan is this: Die quickly.”
Grayson bypassed the usual convoluted summarizing and refutation of the Republicans’ farcical "market-based" plans and re-defined the issue of healthcare reform. At a moment when the Republicans and teabaggers have caused fear and uncertainty through the cynical talk about "death panels" and "pulling the plug on Grandma"–leading senior citizens to become the group least enthusiastic about healthcare reform–Grayson finally put the Republicans on the defensive.
For this and hard-hitting comments about Dick Cheney, Grayson has been pilloried by Establishment media and spanked by top Democrats like House Majority leader Steny Hoyer.
- For daring to take on the Republicans so directly and in terms the public could understand, Politico’s liberal Roger Simon, speaking on "Hardball with Chris Matthews," tore into Grayson, saying he’s "like a guy on crack who’s always searching for a bigger high."
- In a Twitter promotion for his Reliable Sources TV show, Howard Kurtz set out this message: HowardKurtz Must see TV: World-famous TV buffoon to be interviewed on Reliable Sources, this morning at 10 eastern. Has great voice but full of himself."
- A Time article by Michael Scherer and Jay Newton-Small equated Grayson with certified lunatic Michele Bachmann, who constantly compares Obama’s America to Mao’s China, warns the public about the perils of participating in the Census, and dozens of other paranoid, tinfoil-hat statements:
"[I]t is especially easy for Grayson and Bachmann [to find attention-getting niches]. Elected in 2008, he came into politics as a litigator of war profiteers in Iraq who affixed a Bush lied/people died bumper sticker to his car. She came up through grass-roots Republican politics as a culture warrior, working to ban gay marriage, expand the teaching of intelligent design and restrict abortion. In another era, strident politicians on the ideological edges found themselves marginalized once they got to Washington, where power accrues to longevity–and longevity tends to mellow. But Grayson and Bachmann found a back door.
Probably the most influential—and skillful—hit job on Grayson came from David Herszenhorn of the New York Times Nov. 1. After noting Grayson’s impressive resume of degrees from Harvard and Harvard Law and clerking for two future Supreme Court justices in the US Court of Appeals, Herszenhorn then goes on to mock and marginalize Grayson:
"On the lam" [I]n recent weeks, Mr. Grayson has catapulted himself to national renown for outlandish rhetoric and a pugilistic political style that makes him seem less staid lawmaker than a character on the lam from one of his Orlando district’s theme parks."
Problem child" in "playpen": "Mr. Grayson joins colleagues like Michele Bachmann, Republican of Minnesota; Pete Stark, Democrat of California; and Joe Wilson, Republican of South Carolina, in what the decorum-minded see as a bipartisan playpen reserved for political problem children. So for party leaders, the behavior often forces a question: Do you cheer, or wince, or both?"
However, Herszenhorn does permit Grayson to explain his approach: “A lot of people think a Democrat with guts is some kind of mythical creature like a unicorn, but it doesn’t need to be that way,” Mr. Grayson said …He credited his rhetoric with shifting the healthcare debate. “Republicans were basically playing rope-a-dope with Democrats for months,” he said. “Now people know what’s at stake. It’s life and death.”
But whatever balance was offered by Grayson (and James Carville and Barney Frank), the most-remembered lines of the Times and others stories will inevitably be the " character on the lam," "problem child," "buffoon," "a guy on crack," and the linking of Grayson and Bachmann as equivalent "wingnuts."
Grayson does let his rhetoric get out of control some times. Citing the Harvard study of 45,000 deaths, he called it a "holocaust," for which he was repeatedly taken to task by two of TV’s most ardent progressives, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann. Grayson, who is Jewish and lost family members in the Holocaust, apologized for his use of a term. Grayson also used the term "whore" to refer to a female who is former Enron lobbyist now working for the Federal Reserve, and issued an apology.
So perhaps Grayson should smooth some Bronx-bred rough edges and be more judicious. But when it comes down to describing our healthcare crisis as a question of just "monkey business" or "a matter of life and death," "the Problem Child" unquestionably has the right approach.
Democrats could use a lot more "problem children" who will raise a ruckus to signal they care about helping working families access healthcare.