Defending a Bomb-Thrower

Republicans whine about partisanship—while stiff-arming Obama and sitting on their hands. Thank heavens for Alan Grayson, who’s bringing moral backbone to the health-care debate.

The basic blueprint for a freshman Democrat newly elected to a marginal House seat is pretty simple. You want to duck tough issues, position yourself as more centrist than the average Dem, use your newfound incumbent status to soak up some corporate cash you were denied as a challenger, bring home the bacon to the home district, and stay out of trouble. Representative Alan Grayson of Florida has, however, taken a very different course, hiring progressive netroots activist Matt Stoller as a staffer, and going out of his way to throw bombs and court controversy. The results have included talk of congressional resolutions to condemn him, and general disdain from the political establishment. Even those, like The New York Times’ David Herszenhorn, who are willing to take seriously the notion that Grayson knows what he’s doing see his strategy through a very limited lens, explaining that “one talked-about TV appearance leads to three more; every quotable outburst is a potential pitch, spread instantly by YouTube and blogs to an eager audience that can cheer by way of campaign donations made with the click of a mouse.”

Grayson is doing something bigger than grabbing attention; he’s re-injecting strident moralism into a progressive politics that’s come to be dominated by bloodless technocrats.

This is true enough, but no political innovator’s strategy should be seen is purely cynical or instrumental. Grayson is doing something bigger than grabbing attention: He’s re-injecting strident moralism into a progressive politics that’s come to be dominated by bloodless technocrats. These moves can sometimes lead in the wrong direction, but in other places—like the health-care debate unfolding today—they provide a vital voice.

Even someone like me—who thinks Grayson’s moralistic populism has led him to some incorrect policy conclusions about the Federal Reserve and so-called bailouts—can appreciate that raising the moral stakes around health care does a great deal to clarify the debate. And at the end of the day, it’s this for which Grayson has attracted the most scorn. His views on banks are shared by many members of Congress, including Republicans, but his claim that “if you get sick, America, the Republicans’ health-care plan is this: Die quickly.” Technically, of course, this is wrong. The Republicans have no plan, realizing that it’s easier to beat something with nothing because it lets you pick and choose lines of attack rhetorically. But Grayson has put his finger on the logic of the conservative approach to the issue.

Consider a recent opinion piece on health care by Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist and senior fellow at the free-market Cato Institute. He does us the favor of moving beyond shallow criticisms of the health bill in Congress to outlining a bold, conservative, and morally hideous alternative: Nothing—no subsidies for buying health insurance for anyone, and no regulation of insurers. Contemplating the possibility that “if left unregulated, health insurers would deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions,” leaving many unable to buy insurance, Miron offers the disingenuous reply that “insurers would set higher premiums for the unhealthy, but they would cover anyone willing to pay a sufficiently high price.”

This is reminiscent of the old joke that under capitalism the rich and poor are equal, since they both have the right to sleep under a bridge at night to stay out of the rain.

What if you can’t afford the sky-high premiums an insurer would want to charge to cover someone with a bad medical history? Or what if you find yourself uninsured because you lost your job? Or because you’re 11 years old and your parents did something irresponsible? Well, “they would have to rely on private charity.” In other words, as Grayson said, die quickly before your illness bankrupts your friends and family.

Miron defends this pure market approach as more efficient than the alternative of not letting people die in the streets of preventable illness. Whether that’s true or not seems debatable to me (how efficient is it, really, to let large segments of your population languish in poor health or die?) but a debate between his vision and a progressive alternative would be one worth having. What’s not worth having is the kind of phony debate exemplified by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) whining that Obama hasn’t been bipartisan enough or vague complaints that the bills in Congress cost too much or involve too much regulation.

The fact of the matter is that spending money and regulating insurers is the only way to make a health-insurance market that works for everyone. Once you accept those general principles, there are a bunch of different approaches you could take. But Republicans aren’t opposing health reform because they don’t like the details of the approach and have a different idea in mind. When you cut through the wonky details and the political catchphrases, it turns out that they just oppose the fundamental idea and are driven by very different values—values that say that life or death should fundamentally be a question of ability to pay.

Grayson, to be sure, is deliberately being more provocative than your average congressman should be. Joking that he sometimes has trouble listening to what Dick Cheney says "because of the blood that drips from his teeth while he's talking" is an effort to stand out from the crowd. But as it becomes more and more clear that if health reform happens it'll happen with virtually no Republican support, it behooves supporters to raise the stakes and clarify the point that the partisan gap is caused by a real moral chasm and not small policy details. Barack Obama's made a career out of a posture of hyper-reasonableness, and it's worked wonders for him in terms of getting elected. But a successful political movement needs a mix of approaches, and now that the time's come to start pushing legislation through a change-averse Congress and an intransigent and unpopular opposition, more Grayson is just what the doctor ordered.

Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.