Rep. Alan Grayson has been getting nasty emails lately. He's been called a "Jew-boy" and also a "German Nazi." One person said he was "lower than whale dung" while another writer went with "lower than snail scum." And of course he was told to burn in hell.
He's not altogether surprised. He knows this is what happens when you head-butt a hornets' nest, as he did earlier this month by sending out an email equating the tea party to the Ku Klux Klan. The email—complete with a donate button at the bottom—included a picture of a burning cross as the "t" in "tea party."
And it wasn't just Internet trolls or even just the Right that got riled up. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., condemned the email; head of the Democratic National Committee Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz of Florida said she was "disappointed" by it; and no Democrats in Congress have said publicly they support the rhetoric or imagery.
"I just don't get it," said Grayson, wearing a multicolored tie dotted with peace signs. "The concept that we should somehow censor ourselves from doing anything controversial, when you're talking about a matter of extreme public concern that's as serious as racism, strikes me as being hopelessly naïve."
This isn't Grayson's first brush with controversy. He's a guy who once labeled his opponent Rep. Dan Webster "Taliban Dan," and recently took to the House floor to remind everyone that Congress was less popular than dog poop.
And he's clearly not backing down from his KKK email, saying in a statement that "if the hood fits...." He said he found it "unfortunate" that the president has "shown no interest in having this discussion" about the tea party's alleged racism.
For this type of behavior, it's easy to label Grayson as the Left's equivalent of a tea-party congressman. (Remember Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., comparing President Obama to Hitler?) But the problem for Grayson is, without a cadre of equally recalcitrant colleagues, he has the bark, but not the bite of his Republican counterparts.
Say what you want about the risks, conservatives have managed to fight tooth and nail for what they believed in, and have in a lot of ways wrestled the conversation into their terms. Sure, Republicans have yet to harpoon their white whale of destroying Obamacare, but they've managed to take every progressive agenda item—from single-payer health care to ending the sequester—entirely out of discussion during the last round of fighting.
And that's why conservatives are winning on policy.
"We don't have a pathway to progressive fantasyland," concluded Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the chairman of the Progressive Caucus. "We're probably not going to get arrested on the Capitol lawn in favor of single-payer in the next three weeks."
Why is it, in the words of congressional scholar Norm Ornstein, that the "more radical wing of the Republican Party holds the center of gravity and the radical wing of the Democratic Party is just an appendage and not a significant force"?
Ornstein thinks that for Republicans, it's about feeling the underdog as a minority party in Washington. It doesn't help that tea-party-linked lawmakers also appear to live in a right-wing echo chamber.
And if Democrats follow suit, at least in rhetoric if not in tactics? "I do worry that the Ted Cruzes of the world will encourage a more radical Left to emerge," he said. "I think that will just weaken the legitimacy of the center left of the Democratic side."
He doesn't have much to worry about on that front. While Grayson might be providing some over-the-top discourse, no one is pushing radical negotiating tactics.
Asked if this risk-averse mentality among progressives cedes negotiating leverage to the Republicans, Ellison seemed stumped. "That's something for me to really think about," he replied. "Maybe strategically we should be fighting for single payer."
And yet, it's very hard to imagine Democrats successfully employing the same tactics as the tea party going forward. (Just try to imagine 80 Democrats signing a letter saying they won't vote for any budget deal unless there is a tax increase.)
Even Grayson says he isn't interested in that type of governance.
"Many progressives didn't feel like we should engage in that kind of blackmail," he said. "I guess it is probably true that the Left has less of a taste for chaos than the Right. I'm not sure that's a bad thing at all."
This article appears in the November 5, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.