Wilson and Grayson: Provocateurs Who Say What the Base Thinks

Posted November 12, 2009 at 10:22am

The extreme wings of both parties each found an unexpected champion to carry their voices directly to the floor of the House of Representatives during the health care debate.

The conservative messenger came in the form of Rep. Joe Wilson, a backbench party loyalist from South Carolina, while liberals found their herald in outspoken freshman Rep. Alan Grayson, who hails from a swing district in central Florida.

Wilson literally added his voice to the health care debate in September during President Barack Obama’s speech on health care before a joint session of Congress. Wilson stunned his fellow legislators and a national television audience when he shouted “You lie!— after Obama claimed that his health care reform measures would not apply to people who are in the United States illegally.

The moment touched off a media firestorm that transformed Wilson into an overnight conservative icon. And the more that liberals condemned Wilson for his outburst — Democratic leaders pushed through a rare formal rebuke of the Congressman the following week — the more his reputation grew among conservative activists. He quickly became a spokesman for conservative interests and a much-sought-after figure on the Republican fundraising circuit.

Angered by his remark, liberal groups raised more than $1 million for Wilson’s Democratic challenger in 2010. But the Congressman got the last laugh by raising nearly $2.7 million for his re-election effort by Sept. 30.

Wilson’s fervor and profile have been matched to a degree in recent weeks by GOP Reps. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and Virginia Foxx (N.C.), who share his passionate opposition to the Democrats’ health care reform plan.

For the Democrats, Grayson — a wealthy, Bronx-born lawyer with a big personality — stepped into the role of defender of his party’s health care policy in late September.

In a speech on the House floor Grayson declared that the GOP’s plan for health care was “don’t get sick,— and if you do get sick, “die quickly.—

The remark riled conservatives, especially after Grayson refused to apologize and kept up the attacks.

Grayson delighted liberal Democratic activists by ripping Republicans for being, among other things, “foot-dragging, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.— But his over-the-top style has also gotten him into a bit of hot water.

In October, Grayson took some flak for providing a link to his Congressional campaign on a health care-related Web site that he had promoted on the House floor. A week later, he was forced to apologize for calling an aide to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke “a K Street whore— in a radio interview.

Republican strategists say Grayson’s antics have given them more than enough ammunition to brand the Congressman as an out-of-control liberal who is too far left for his swing district. But the GOP’s confidence in its ability to oust Grayson has not been matched on the recruiting side. A series of potentially strong challengers have taken a pass on the 2010 race, and the Congressman has quickly developed a national following.

While Wilson and Grayson won’t be anywhere near the room when the final health care deals are cut, they continue to influence the debate from the outside by taking the rhetorical lead — and therefore cannot be ignored.