WASHINGTON - Could a little-known freshman Democrat from a
conservative-leaning Florida district be just what the doctor ordered
for liberals wary of what they view as a timid president too ready to
compromise on overhauling health care.
A little more than a week ago, few Americans had heard of Rep. Alan
Grayson, who represents the Orlando area, and more than a handful of
his congressional colleagues may not have been able to pick the
6-foot-4, 51-year-old out of a lineup.
But that was before the
combative Bronx-born congressman and Harvard-educated lawyer took to
the floor of the House of Representatives last week, shocking the few
Republicans within earshot when he dramatically declared the GOP health
care plan is "Don't get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly."
The after-hours tirade quickly made the rounds online and on television
the next morning, energizing Republicans and Democrats alike -- many of
whom from both parties appear eager to keep the rhetoric surrounding
the health care debate at a fever pitch.
For Republicans, Grayson was the long-sought answer to Rep. Joe Wilson,
the South Carolina Republican who yelled "You lie" to President Obama
last month and faced a torrent of Democratic criticism for breaching
congressional protocol and basic principles of human decency.
But many Democrats so outwardly critical of Wilson's behavior quickly
rallied to Grayson's side, seemingly thrilled a Democrat finally had
showed a level of brazenness that's long been more characteristic of
those on the other side of aisle.
"People want to see a congressman with guts," Grayson told CNN. "And America likes to hear the truth."
But for liberals, many of whom say they feel their party is all too
willing to roll over amid GOP attacks, it wasn't just Grayson's initial
comments that drew acclaim but also the Florida Democrat's hardhearted refusal to recant his statements in the face of Republican criticism.
After all, following GOP calls for an apology -- along with a threat of
a congressional resolution condemning the remarks -- Grayson returned
to the House floor to apologize instead to the "dead."
happened was his floor speech and the fact that he didn't back down set
a new standard for how Democrats deal with Republican hissy fits," said
David Dayen, a liberal blogger who often writes on the Daily Kos Web
site. "He's been a hero to Democrats since his term started, but now
he's a hero on health care."
To be sure, Grayson already had
shown he was a different kind of freshman congressman before the "die
quickly" speech, having forcefully taken Federal Reserve Chairman Ben
Bernanke to task in what was an instant YouTube moment at a House
Committee hearing less than a month into the job.
He also held
up a vote on global warming legislation until he secured a $50 million
hurricane research center in his district -- a move more characteristic
of the chamber's longtime lawmakers. And he's won liberal support for
his steadfast support of ACORN, even as many Democrats voted to defund the community organizing group, and for his forceful anti-war stance.
But it was the late-night diatribe last week -- presumably seen by no
more than a few dozen C-SPAN viewers before going viral -- that netted
Grayson more than $500,000 from 5,000 donors around the country. It's
also garnered a media tour worthy of a national celebrity peddling a
tell-all book, appearing on a bevy of cable and national news programs
to amplify his attacks on Republicans.
Grayson appears to be
reveling in the newfound political celebrity, having sent a string of
fundraising e-mails in recent days with one proclaiming "in a town
where everyone can only tell lies, he's just invented the truth."
No doubt recognizing his popularity among the Democratic base, neither
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi nor the White House was willing to call the
comments over the line, instead advocating for a more conciliatory tone
in general from both parties.
Meanwhile, the few Democratic
commentators who did say Grayson's actions were beyond the pale risked
a backlash from liberal readers hungering for a fight after a summer in
which the health care debate appeared to be dominated by loud opponents on the right.
"I'm in trouble with some of my readers for not lionizing Alan Grayson,
[because I am] a person who has said, 'I would like to bring facts back
to this debate' and who has criticized the death panel rhetoric,' "
said Joan Walsh, editor in chief of Salon.com.
bona fide heroic status with the left isn't likely to play well back in
Florida's 8th Congressional District, a jagged swath of the Sunshine
State that includes Orlando and cuts through some of its northern
The district tilts toward the GOP, but with the help
of Obama's coattails and his own deep pockets, Grayson narrowly
unseated a four-term Republican in 2008.
who already were eager to reclaim the seat, see their window open wide
now that Grayson has become a liberal icon.
"We are positive
he's going to lose; we are going to trounce him," said Lew Oliver,
Republican Party chairman in Orange County, where Grayson's district
lies. Oliver made his comments to the Southern Florida Political Report
A small problem: No one's lined up to take on Grayson yet. But that doesn't seem to worry Oliver.
"A random Republican off the street could beat him," he said.