Saturday, July 12, 2008

"McCain...has given his Pal Phil a Kick in the Pants" ::
Personal Aside: If McCain's "Straight Talk Express" Runs Over Phil Gramm I'll Be Disappointed Because He Told It Like It Is.

Posted: 11 Jul 2008 09:36 AM CDT

Long before he was a national figure... and, seemingly aeons before he was slapped down by John McCain... I became Phil Gramm fan: when he was a little known, folksy Democratic congressman from Corsicana, Texas with a fondness for a product Quaker Oats made, Wolf Brand chili. When he succeeded a tiger in the House in that south Texas district in 1978-a tiger literally-"Tiger" Teague, a conservative Democrat with a congressional medal of honor-I happened to drop in on him in his tacky freshman quarters at the Longworth House Office building, the same building I had worked in twenty years earlier as a House staffer. Wolf Brand Chili was made in Corsicana and I brought a box of it with me as an introduction to our newest congressman.

Ethical purists would say I tried to bribe a congressman with an unsolicited gift but he leapt out of his chair, pumped my hand and made a delicious concoction for both of us to eat. I must admit now that Mexican hot spicy chili isn't my thing-but it is... at least was... Gramm's. As I managed to gulp down chili which caused my eyes to water and nostrils to run wet from its strength, Gramm, a Ph.D in economics but who hides it well, asked if I had read a book about Wolf Brand. I hadn't but he produced it from his shelf propped next to a tract he had written for his doctorate on with the title "Laissez-Faire and the Optimum Quantity of Money" republished in the magazine "Economic Inquiry" of March, 1974. It was well-thumbed and called "A Bowl of Red."

After hearing his lesson on the economy, expressed in down-to-earth southern talk (he was born in Georgia, an army brat, at Fort Benning), I became a fan and am so now. He was the first one to instruct me on the Dickie Flatt test to determine what federal programs are worthwhile. Dickie Flatt was a printer in Mexia, Texas, who never finished high school but in Gramm's eloquent twang represented the problems small businessmen have with taxation, regulation and government spending.

Like Dickie Flatt, who still lives in Mexia and whom I was to meet years later, I became hooked on Phil Gramm. I was delighted that one of his hard-nosed fiscal sense existed in the Democratic party and hoped he'd stay because as most know who read my stuff, I want to have a strong two-party system instead of a one-party system where commonsense resides mostly in the Republicans and nuttiness and far-left goofyness with the Democrats, the reason being when the pendulum swings... as it inevitably does... we want a Democratic party to be able to think straight. Phil Gramm agreed with me but he was pessimistic that he would ever amount to much as a Democrat, even though he WAS one at the time.

Well, you know what happened. Ronald Reagan got in two years later and Gramm fell in love with Reagan conservatism. When Reagan presented his budget and Tip O'Neill began to ridicule it, Gramm, a member of the Budget committee, had no qualms about becoming a mole inside the Democratic House for Reagan. So honest was he that it was no surprise because in the House Democratic caucus session on the budget, he made the same case Reagan was making.

So he was called up short and told by the House leadership: you have to make a choice. Do you want to be loyal to the president or to Tip O'Neill?

Gramm answered in his south Georgia twang transferred to south Texas: "You mean ah have to vote like y'all? Hell no!"

So he was stripped of his Budget committee job. That happened to be the very day that I stopped in to see him once again, as part of my regular itinerary on the Hill-hoping he would give me more primer lessons on the economy.

Instead, he said: "No lesson today. Ah'm resignin'!"

I said: Resigning as a Democrat and moving the seat over to the Republicans? The tradition in the congress for members who grow alienated from their party was to move to Independent status... ala Wayne Morse of Oregon (elected as a Republican but announced he'd be an Independent and in the next election ran as a Democrat). Since then, Vermont's William Jeffords moved to Independent and most recently Connecticut's Joe Lieberman to Independent-Democrat.

He stunned me by answering: "Nope. The voters of the 6th district elected me as a Democrat and ah cain't do that to them. Ah'm resignin' from the Congress. They'll gotta call a special election and ah'm going to do the right thing-run as a Republican."

I said: Phil, it'll be pretty unpopular to do because a special election'll cost money to put on.

"Money well spent," he said. "Anyhow, ah gotta do it. Only right thing to do."

The 6th district of Texas had been Democratic since the Civil War. The district was strongly conservative but super-strongly Democrat. Many conservative Democrats were likely standing in line for Phil's job and the Republican party in that Texas district was about as weak as the Republican party is in... let's say... Cook county, Illinois. I worried a good deal about it, even tried to dissuade him in the name of pragmatism but he convinced me what he was doing was right. I decided a good man is going to leave the Congress and not return.

But he did win and the 6th district of Texas, becoming the first Republican to represent the district since it was created and Republicans have represented it ever since. He won by telling the people in his twang: "Ah had a choice either represent Tip O'Neill up there or y'all and ah decided for y'all." That kind of folksiness and guts got him elected. Speaking with the same kind of frankness and in economic terms the average guy can understand, in 1984, Phil Gramm went on to the Senate, defeating Congressman Ron Paul in the primary and Democrat Lloyd Doggett in the general. As a senator he continually called for and fought for reduced spending and lower taxes. He joined with others to pass the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings act as a means of cutting the budget across-the-board of targets weren't met. Some aspects of the act were ruled unconstitutional by a liberal Supreme Court.

When he got frustrated with the Senate (as anyone of any intelligence would have to), he decided to run for the presidency. I am proud to say I got on his team early although I had the feeling that a deep Georgia twang, rimless spectacles and a guy who looks like the butcher who answers the bell you ring in a supermarket, beaming, friendly, but definitely not sexy, not charismatic, wasn't going to play in an era of coiffed hair and p. r. advisers. But we wouldn't have him change for a moment. He was an American-Texan natural with sayings like

"If you're willin' to tackle the tough issues, you don't need to worry about steppin' on anyone's toes; they'll stand aside and shove you to the front" and

"Ah have as many guns as ah need but ah don't have as many guns as ah want."

He got to know John McCain when the two of them teamed up to help kill Hillary Clinton's elaborate and bureaucratic health care maze. The two hit it off immediately and when Gramm ran for president McCain was his national campaign chairman and tagged along on his plane, planning to run later. That actually was the REAL straight talk express.

All of us shuddered... McCain as well... when Phil unloaded with his candid twang. He raised a lot of money but failed. He told McCain, "all yours, pal." But in 2000 he couldn't support the Arizonan against George W. Bush of Texas. The two fell into disrepute but got back together by 2004. Now the situation is turned: Gramm is general chairman of McCain's campaign and stood by his friend when last year the McCain campaign went broke and his candidacy was all but called a dead letter by pundits.

Gramm is still there-and will be... unless...

Unless his remark about whining causes McCain to toss him under the so-called Straight Talk Express. It would be a shame because impolitic as he was, Gramm is right. For one thing, although the mainstream media don't specify, he didn't imply the country was whining but the media is-something the media hesitate to clarify. To hear the radio and read some of the major newspapers, we're in a recession right now. Nonsense. U. S. economic expansion may slow to the weakest pace in six years in the fourth quarter but the world's largest economy will still be growing, albeit slowly-0-.5% annualized growth from October to December, down from 1% last month. If you really want to know what a recession is, reckon that the one that began in July, 1981 and lasted to November, 1982 was the sharpest since the Great Depression. As the Fed's Paul Volcker began to wring inflation out of the economy by slowing the rate of growth of the money supply and hiking interest rates, unemployment hit 10.8% in December, 1982, higher than at any time in the postwar era.

Ronald Reagan's popularity sank to 35% in January, 1983, approaching Richard Nixon's and Jimmy Carter's levels. The Reagan economic program took it on the chin but worked. From a high of 10.8% unemployment improved until it fell to 7.2% on election day,1984 and inflation fell from 10.3% in 1981 to 3.2% in 1983. Corporate earnings rose by 20% in July, 1983 compared to the same month the year preceding.

Was Phil Gramm impolitic? Hell, yes! It's a miracle that he was elected to office at all given his proclivity for candor. He said, "We've sort of become a nation of whiners. You just hear this constant whining, complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline. You've heard of mental depression. This is mental recession." He pointed to the media as spreading unnecessary anxiety about the economy. "Misery sells newspapers. Thank God the economy is not as bad as you read in the newspaper every day."

I understand why John McCain corrected him. McCain's running for the presidency and when you do that you don't want to stand by ambiguous statements like Phil's. But if he tosses Phil under the bus, I'll be disappointed. That will leave only Jack Kemp whereas the two-man team of Gramm and Kemp is ideal-Gramm the professional economist with an unmatched sense of budget responsibility that goes with tax reduction... and Kemp... Kemp? I got it: Kemp the bouffant-haired JFK wannabe with a degree in physical education from Occidental who nevertheless can sail free-spirited before a crowd with the same aplomb as Barack Obama.

So in summary, McCain should and has given his pal Phil a kick in the pants. Well he should. But if he lets him go and tosses him under the bus... and on the off-chance he gets to be president, vetoes Phil for treasury secretary because of his bad p. r... ., I'll be gravely disappointed.

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