Throwing Phil Gramm Overboard

"You’ve heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession." … “We have sort of become a nation of whiners" … "You just hear this constant whining, complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline.”  — Former Senator Phil Gramm speaking to the Washington Times.

Before I started my broadcasting career, I was asked to be on the steering committee in my home county for Sen. Phil Gramm’s presidential campaign. That was before the world changed on September 11, 2001 and the long term economy was most important to me.  I wasn’t sure what it meant to “steer” a candidate but I did get a close look at Phil Gramm at that time.

Gramm never really had a shot at winning the Presidency in 1996.  He was beaten decisively in the Iowa caucuses and dropped out to support Sen. Bob Dole. 

Sen. Phil Gramm is a native Georgian born, in Columbus. He is also a University of Georgia-educated economist and a conservative.  I remember him saying in 1996 if we froze spending for 4 years, we would balance the budget and then would be able to tackle our economic problems anew. Wonder what would have happened if we had taken that advice back then?

Phil Gramm was in the news for a different reason last week.  In an interview with the Washington Times last week, Gramm let his guard down, or did he?  He said that America was in a “mental recession” and that we have “become a nation of whiners.”  As an economic advisor to Sen. John McCain this was big news.  It didn’t take long for Sen. McCain to say Phil Gramm “…doesn’t speak for me, I speak for me.”

McCain went on, joking that Gramm could become the Ambassador to Belarus, questioning whether he’d be acceptable in Minsk.  I suppose that was a slap but without the inside baseball knowledge, the average American didn’t get it…and John McCain needs to “get” supporting the people who support him.

Phil Gramm was right and John McCain was wrong to reject his comments out of hand. McCain missed a great teaching moment on the economy and the history of American exceptionalism in the face of economic diversity. We are in an economic slow down not in a recession.  In addition, there is opportunity in every downturn and Sen. McCain needs to seize it.

The McCain campaign is gearing up all over the country with the use of surrogates to make his case.  If these surrogates have to worry that with every wrong word they are going to be thrown over board, they are not going to fight this campaign to the fullest.  If the McCain campaign does not fight to the fullest, which means giving their surrogates the freedom to fight on his behalf, they can’t win. 

Trying to clarify — but not apologize for — his remarks, Senator Gramm moved his ire to the press for the negative reporting of the economy.  The press is always in the bag for whoever the Democrat candidate for president is.  When a Democrat is president or running for reelection it is red carpets, sunshine and guitar riffs all the time.  Just look at the miniscule reporting of the economic slowdown of 2000 that fell during the presidential election.  They wanted Gore to win so they played up the down-trending Clinton economy. 

If you look at the economic report card of the Bush Administration, you’d have to say it has been pretty good with the exception of the 6 months around 9/11 and the last 6-8 months.  Despite the war — precipitated by the first attack on our soil since Pearl Harbor — this economy has been pretty strong.  The mainstream press reports it as the worst economy ever and I believe that Sen. Gramm was referring to that. This economic down turn is not a depression and not a recession.  There are serious problems with the economy — the dollar is weak, banks are afraid to loan money, gas and food prices are high — we may still go into a recession if our monetary policy and our management of the size of government doesn’t get back on track.

We are a nation of whiners when 50% of the people look to the government for some sort of financial help every month.  We are a nation of whiners when we look to the government at all to solve our problems.  But we don’t have to be whiners.  America is the greatest country in the world and Gramm’s remarks were meant to remind us in the way a coach would remind his players.  He was saying, don’t be losers, we are Americans and if we are down on ourselves, how can we be successful?  He was giving us the kick in the pants that we need right now.

So Sen. John McCain, I am with you.  I know that you are trying to control your temper at every turn.  You are trying to look jovial and happy when dealing with the American people on the campaign trail.  On domestic issues, you don’t want to tell voters anything they don’t want to hear.  To steal a phrase, you want “to keep hope alive.”  But let the other guy do that.  When you try to please everyone, you stand for nothing and make no one happy.

You need to lift up conservatives like Phil Gramm.  Let them go and make your case around the country but more importantly, don’t waste your time pushing down or out the people that support you.  Take every time that someone wants you to comment on what Phil Gramm said as an opportunity to say what you will do. It’s possible that Phil Gramm could have said it better, but he wasn’t wrong.

Spend less time throwing your supporters under the Straight Talk Express and express yourself more directly with the voter.  It’s the only way to win, and you must win.