Alan Grayson, raising eyebrows

ALAN GRAYSON, RAISING EYEBROWS…. Ask Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) about the difference between his more provocative public comments and some of the shrills shouts from the right, and he’ll point to a qualitative difference.

“What they have done on the right is make people fearful and make people divided,” he said. “What I have done is call out the Republicans for having no solutions to American’s problems. There is a sort of core element of truth that makes what I do effective.”

That effectiveness has quickly made the freshman lawmaker a notable national figure.

On paper, Representative Alan Grayson, a freshman Democrat from Florida, seems a bit stiff: degrees from Harvard and Harvard Law; a resume that includes clerking for the United States Court of Appeals under Judges Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Robert Bork; an advocate for the aging.

But in 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.

First it was his comment, “If you get sick, America, the Republicans’ health care plan is this: Die quickly.” Then, appearing on MSNBC, he said of former Vice President Dick Cheney: “I have trouble listening to what he says sometimes because of the blood that drips from his teeth while he’s talking.” Finally, a radio interview surfaced in which he had called a female adviser to the Federal Reserve chairman “a K Street whore” — a reference to her former job as a Washington lobbyist. That one forced him to make a formal apology.

Mr. Grayson could be the latest incarnation of what in the American political idiom is known as a wing nut — a loud darling of cable television and talk radio whose remarks are outrageous but often serious enough not to be dismissed entirely. Mr. Grayson is the more notable because he hurls his nuts from the left in a winger world long associated with the right.

I’m not sure I buy the notion that Grayson is a “wing nut” — part of the label has to do with combining outrageousness with stupidity, and dismissing him as an intellectual lightweight, along the lines of Bachmann, Broun, or Joe Wilson, is a mistake.

But I think the fact that Grayson doesn’t pull left jabs is what makes him unusual. We’re just not accustomed to liberal Democrats playing by these rules, and when it happens, the political world just doesn’t seem to know what to do about it.

Matt Yglesias recently argued that Gray is “breaking one of the unspoken rules of modern American politics. The rule is that conservatives talk about their causes in stark, moralistic terms and progressives don’t. Instead, progressives talk about our causes in bloodless technocratic terms…. [M]oralism from the left is very unfamiliar to American political debates.”

Grayson doesn’t see the value in the usual model, so he’s playing by a new set of rules. After the “die quickly” story, instead of showing contrition, he went on CNN and called Republicans opposing health care reform “foot-dragging, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.” It’s one of those things the left just isn’t supposed to do.

Not surprisingly, then, the conduct generates a variety of competing opinions. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who can probably be described fairly as a liberal, said Grayson risks contributing to a “corrosive process that drives reasonable people away.” He added, “It breaks my heart.”

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) offered a different take: “I welcome Grayson’s taking the fight to them. I think he has got to be a little more careful about his punches, but I am glad he’s throwing them.”

Sounds right to me.