10.01.09

The Democrats' Joe Wilson?

Alan Grayson’s anti-GOP rant on health care made the Florida congressman a liberal hero—and the right’s favorite new whipping boy. Is this a ticket to stardom—or political suicide?

Is Alan Grayson the Democrats' Joe Wilson? After stirring up a media firestorm with his statement on the House floor that Republicans want sick people to “die quickly,” Rep. Grayson drew frequent comparisons to the South Carolina legislator who shouted “You lie!” at President Obama.

Like Wilson, Grayson became an overnight sensation—an instant hero to his party’s base, and Public Enemy No. 1 to the opposition. Unlike Wilson, however, Grayson offers no apologies. In fact, he's gone on a media blitz since his initial speech to amplify his incendiary arguments. He returned to the House floor to denounce the estimated 45,000 annual deaths due to lack of insurance in America as a “holocaust.” On CNN, he called Republican lawmakers “knuckle-dragging neanderthals" who “should apologize to America.”

The NRCC recently launched an entire Web site devoted to attacking Grayson, while Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer labeled him “the laughing stock of the House of Representatives.”

There’s no reason to back down, Grayson says, because he’s right—and the right’s wrong. “There's a fundamental difference: They're lying about our bill and we’re telling the truth,” Grayson said in an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast. “There is no moral equivalence between truth and lies.” So much for the post-partisan era.

Michelle Goldberg: Is Obamacare Pro-Life?But Grayson differs significantly from Wilson in one key respect. The South Carolina Republican is in what has, at least until now, been fairly solid GOP terrain. Grayson, on the other hand, won election last year by beating a four-term Republican, thanks in no small measure to Obama’s coattails. His district twice voted for George W. Bush for president. He’s a liberal in center-right territory—and Republicans are licking their chops at the prospect of making him a one-termer.

“Everyone wants to make these comparisons with Joe Wilson but Joe Wilson is in an incredibly Republican district,” a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, John Randall, told The Daily Beast. “[Grayson] may be able to bring in national money, but that money won’t convince people that don't agree with him.”

The NRCC recently launched an entire Web site devoted to attacking Grayson, www.alandisgrayson.com, while Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer labeled him “the laughing stock of the House of Representatives.”

“I'd be very surprised if Congressman Grayson wins reelection,” a Republican consultant based in Florida, Randy Nielsen, told The Daily Beast.

While he might look vulnerable on paper, Grayson does start the race for reelection in 2010 with one big advantage: He’s rich as Croesus. A defense lawyer who successfully sued defense contractors in Iraq on behalf of whistleblowers, he amassed a personal fortune of $31 million, making him one of the wealthiest members of Congress. His latest outburst will only fuel donations from liberals cheering him on. Thus far, anyway, his campaign war chest has helped scare off any big-name Republican challengers.

The chairman of the Democratic committee for Lake County, Florida, Nancy Hurlbert, told The Daily Beast that she thought Grayson would ultimately benefit from the national attention by exciting the base that elected him.

“We don't profess any idea that this is going to be easy, but certainly there is an opportunity that he can cash in on some of those Democrats who weren't sure he'd be the person they thought he'd be when they sent him to D.C,” Hurlbert.

Grayson himself sees little political downside to his belligerence.

“Whether you're Democratic or Republican, you want a congressman with guts,” he said, adding that his office has received an “overwhelmingly positive” response from constituents. “People like it when you tell the truth. It doesn't happen often enough around here.”

Health care isn’t the only liberal banner Grayson has taken up. He also blasted GOP efforts to defund ACORN. Noting that their legislation called for cutting funding to "any organization" that had been charged with breaking various laws, Grayson quickly pointed out that the language would apply to nearly all major defense contractors as well, tapping the expertise he gathered on the subject during his days as a lawyer suing on behalf of whistleblowers.

“I saw the worst side of the war,” Grayson said. “I saw contractors cheating the troops, literally killing the troops, feeding them poisoned water, electrocuting them. I saw contractors cheating the taxpayers and undermining the mission. I felt that as much good as I was trying to do—and succeeding in doing—I could do more in Congress.”

His experience also helped make Grayson one of the most virulently anti-war activists on Capitol Hill. He’s called for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, even as President Obama considers sending thousands of more troops to the region.

"It's a lot more important that we defend our own borders than try to manipulate micro-policy on the other side of the world,” he said. “I remember what happened to President Johnson in Vietnam. I wouldn't want to see Afghanistan become Barack Obama's Vietnam.”

But Grayson doesn’t wear ideological blinders. He’s found common cause in his anti-war stance with Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), who Grayson talks to often and says has “been right about the war as long as anybody else has.” Both men have also made a top priority of taking on the Federal Reserve and the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

“We are a government of checks and balances and those checks and balances have to apply to the Federal Reserve like everything else—it doesn't make any sense that they can operate like they do in the dark with literally trillions of dollars,” Grayson said.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.