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Voters should fire Bachmann, Grayson

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
  • John Avlon says most Americans want an end to extreme partisanship
  • He says two members of Congress say outrageously extreme things to aid fundraising nationally
  • Avlon says Bachmann and Grayson distort the truth and stir up partisan fervor
  • He says voters can send a message by rejecting their forms of politics

Editor's note: John P. Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America."

New York (CNN) -- If you're angry at Washington politics, you're not alone. But if you're only angry at one party, you're missing the point.

Ninety-three percent of Americans believe there's too much partisan infighting in Washington, but that other 7 percent too often dominates the political debate.

The extremes in both parties practice the politics of incitement. They think they've hit on a winning formula, using fear and hate to generate hyperpartisan loyalty. But this divide-to-conquer strategy is damaging our country.

It's time to go on the offense against the extremes -- and prime examples of the politics of incitement in Congress are Republican Michele Bachmann and Democrat Alan Grayson.

Video: Rep. Alan Grayson talks about ads

Both are evidence of what I call the Limbaugh Brigades, the growing number of congressmen who take their strategic cues from talk radio, in which there is no such thing as too extreme. Instead of trying constructively to form new coalitions and win over the reasonable edge of the opposition, they throw rhetorical bombs and play to the base of their party.

Bachmann and Grayson are rewarded by the boatloads of special interest activist cash they raise nationally. If they win re-election it will encourage more politicians to use their polarizing playbook. That's why they both should be defeated in November.

Minnesota's Michele Bachmann has transformed herself into a one-woman Wingnut factory, spewing out a steady stream of hate, fear and hyperpartisanship since her October 2008 claim that Barack Obama might be "anti-American" and calling for a McCarthy-esque inquiry into the loyalties of congressmen. She continued with a string of howlers through the first years of the administration.

She opposed funding for AmeriCorps, saying she saw "a very strong chance that we will see that young people will be put into mandatory service" with "re-education camps." On cap and trade, she urged Minnesotans to be "armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back." And on health care she urged an audience: "What we have to do today is make a covenant, to slit our wrists, be blood brothers on this thing. This will not pass."

Her greatest hits could fill a double album. One measure of their credibility is that Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking venture by the St. Petersburg Times found that in the 11 instances where they researched her claims, Bachmann had earned "the rare distinction" of an all false or "pants-on-fire" record.

But Bachmann's hyperpartisan profile is precisely what's enabled her to raise a record $3.4 million this election cycle. It's part of the calculation -- raise enough activist cash nationally to compensate for the fact that you've alienated mainstream, Main Street voters back home.

Bachmann's opponent is Minnesota State Senator Tarryl Clark, a mother of two who was the top vote-getter in her legislative district in 2008. In stark contrast to Bachmann, she's developed a record of working across the aisle, co-sponsoring legislation with conservative Republicans and blocking at least one tax hike proposal from taking place.

The 6th district of Minnesota is considered conservative, and Bachmann is holding on to a single digit lead, but this is a state that has earned the phrase "Minnesota Nice" and there ain't anything nice about Michele Bachman's brand of politics. That's why Lake Wobegon author Garrison Keillor called Bachmann "embarrassing to me and a great many Minnesotans."

Down in Florida, Freshman Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson represents Florida's 8th district, a swing seat in central Florida encompassing most of Orlando. It voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004 while voting for Obama in 2008. Independent voters make up a quarter of the registered voters in the district.

But Grayson's approach to Congress has been to throw bombs -- in a mirror image of the Wingnuts on the right. In a speech on the House floor, he said, "The Republican health care plan is this: 'Don't get sick, and if you do get sick, die quickly.' " Days later he attacked Republicans as "foot-dragging, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who think they can dictate policy to America by being stubborn." Then he called Republicans "the enemy of America" and "certainly the enemy of peace."

It was only a matter of time until the same tactics emerged on the campaign trail, and they did in an ad in which he referred to his Republican opponent Daniel Webster as "Taliban Dan," during a time of war when members of the real Taliban are killing U.S. troops in Afghanistan. summed up the ad's dishonesty well: "We thought Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson of Florida reached a low point when he falsely accused his opponent of being a draft dodger during the Vietnam War, and of not loving his country. But now Grayson has lowered the bar even further. He's using edited video to make his rival appear to be saying the opposite of what he really said."

Webster is a respected former state senate president who deserves far better than the fear mongering and smears he's being attacked with.

Recent polls show Grayson falling 7 points behind Webster in the wake of the "Taliban Dan" ad. It's a well-deserved reminder that centrists and independent voters will push back against negative ads and gutterball politics.

This week more than 130 former members of Congress addressed a letter to all candidates for the House and Senate urging a return to civil discourse and lamenting that "lawmakers who try to address problems and find workable solutions across party lines find themselves denigrated by an angry fringe of partisans."

The letter also said, "Congress appears gripped by zero-sum game partisanship. ... Members who far exceed the bounds of normal and respectful discourse are not viewed with shame but are lionized, treated as celebrities, rewarded with cable television appearances, and enlisted as magnets for campaign fund-raisers."

It's time to beat extreme partisans such as Bachmann and Grayson at their own game. If you're angry about the ugly incivility that is dominating our politics, causing congressmen to try and divide in order to conquer, it's time to push back.

We need to stand up to the extremes on both sides to stop the cycle of incitement before it gets even uglier.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

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