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Grayson kicked off his big controversy by taking charts to the floor of the House, which makes for better video. Republicans, he said, have a "health-care plan for America: 'Don't get sick.'" He then added that they also had a plan for the sick: "Die quickly." It was an instant online sensation, with more YouTube viewers than Grayson got votes in his home district. He offered up more bombast, calling a Federal Reserve Board staffer who is a former lobbyist a "K Street whore" and calling Republicans "foot-dragging, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals" on CNN. The liberal online hub the Huffington Post linked to the caveman remark, and more than 1,500 people wrote comments. "We need about 100 more Graysons in Congress," read one. Grayson later apologized to the Fed aide but repeatedly refused to apologize to the GOP. (You can watch those videos on YouTube too.)
For Grayson and Bachmann, the objective is both to rally their loyalists and to rile the other side. Cable news embraces this sort of stuff, having turned August into the summer of town-hall fury. The liberal MSNBC host Keith Olbermann joyfully turned Bachmann into a "worst person in the world," just as Grayson became a star of conservative broadcasting as a sort of public enemy No. 1. "They gave us enormous free media exposure," Grayson says of his political opponents after his "die quickly" performance. "They were running my speech unedited on Fox for an entire day."
If you have gotten this far, you have already made it as a new media populist. Grayson now gets invited on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher. Bachmann is bombarded with booking requests, which she grants with some regularity. "Frankly, Congresswoman Bachmann is in Congress to serve the people, not the media," says her spokeswoman, Debbee Keller. But Bachmann hardly lets that stop her.
Step 3: Cash In
Grayson and Bachmann have found ways to use the controversies surrounding their outbursts to raise money and broaden their reach. Their devoted followers respond to appeals. Grayson posted his CNN caveman quip on a website he created, called Congressman?With?Guts.com attracting pledges of $220,000 from nearly 3,000 donors in about three weeks. (Almost 10,000 individuals gave Grayson more than $250,000 immediately after the "die quickly" speech.) Bachmann, meanwhile, took her fundraising appeal to social media and talk radio, asking her supporters to send a message to "Big Sister Pelosi and Big Brother Reid" and the "gangster government." It worked. "The left can't ignore $118,000!!!" she announced on Twitter, boasting of a three-day online fundraising haul.
"The interesting dynamic here is that you used to be penalized by the public for not being civil," says Republican strategist John Feehery, who worked for former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "Now it's almost glorified." We still don't know whether this sort of fly-by-night notoriety of rhetorical bombast is sustainable or just diverting. In 2008, Bachmann had to battle for her seat after saying on MSNBC's Hardball that Barack Obama "may have anti-American views." And Grayson must defend a Republican-leaning district next to Disney World that he won by just 13,364 votes. Republicans have put his district at the top of their target list for 2010. "I made myself the No. 1 target for the national Republican Party," he admits. "Whatever happens, happens."