Righter Than Newt
Phil Gramm is the most conservative Republican on the
national scene. He is running for President. His candidacy will test just how
audacious his adventuresome party really is.
by David Frum
The political career of Senator Phil Gramm requires that we rethink everything
we believe we know about American politics. We believe we know that television
demands politicians whose hair is shiny, whose voices are mellifluous, and who
exude cheerful humility. We believe we know that Americans abhor extremes and
mistrust ideology. We believe we know that government programs are ineradicable
and that costly middle-class entitlements are hugely popular. We believe we
know all these things. Gramm believes we're wrong.
Gramm's hair does not shine, and his Georgia accent is as thick as gumbo. He is
neither cheerful nor humble. He makes fewer political compromises than almost
anyone else in public life. He wants to abolish affirmative action, write a
balanced-budget amendment to the federal Constitution, slash taxes, and
eliminate roughly a third of the domestic budget, with the biggest cuts coming
from programs intended for low-income people. And he is utterly convinced that
what he wants, America wants. In sum, Gramm is inviting Republicans to wager
the 1996 presidential election on a breathtaking gamble: that the voters are at
last ready to repudiate liberalism completely.
Gramm's invitation is of more than merely speculative interest. He is an
all-but-declared candidate for the Republican nomination (formal announcement
date: February 24). With some $5 million in the bank already, and with the
names of 88,000 proven donors in his computers, he is the best-organized,
best-funded of all the Republican aspirants. And because 60 percent of all
Republican delegates will be chosen in the six weeks after New Hampshire's
February primary, the candidate who is best prepared in 1995 has to be
considered the front-runner for 1996.
If Phil Gramm is indeed the Republican candidate (and assuming that Bill
Clinton retains the Democratic nomination), then the 1996 election will present
the voters with a choice between two men starkly different and yet strangely
similar--two equal and opposite halves of their generation's experience. Gramm
and Clinton are only four years apart in age. Both come from poor southern
families, and both owe their success in life to the great postwar expansion of
higher education. Both have spent virtually their entire working lives in the
public sector, and both are married to high-achieving professional women.
Neither has served in the armed forces--which would make 1996 the first race
between two nonveterans since 1944. For both men, modern government was an
accomplished fact by the time they entered politics: they are inheritors of the
Great Society. But whereas Clinton, like many of the people who thought of
themselves as rebels during the 1960s, accepts this inheritance with hardly any
reservations, Gramm has rebelled against it. Thus there is perhaps one more
thing we shall have to revise if Gramm wins his prize, and that is our
conventional understanding of who the young people of the 1960s really were and
what they really believed, at the time and in the years since.
Clinton may have imbibed the free and easy ways of that decade; Gramm remains
as driven and self-controlled as any upwardly mobile poor boy in a Victorian
novel. Asked to assess the quality of the Clinton White House staff, Gramm
says, "They have a sloppy look about them." Sloppy Gramm is not, and he does
not tolerate sloppiness in those around him. His shirts are always meticulously
pressed, and the down-home remarks he makes in public have all been carefully
weighed in advance. Unlike the President, Gramm is scrupulously punctual. In
the course of his ascent President Clinton somehow absorbed some of the relaxed
manners of his aristocratic heroes, the Roosevelts and the Kennedys. It's
understandable that--as Clinton's pollsters discovered to their horror in
1992--many Americans assumed he was born in comfort. But nobody could ever
mistake Gramm for anything but a self-made man.
A Reputation for "Meanness"
Perhaps it is Gramm's thrusting qualities that most strongly mark the
difference between his conservatism and that of his antecedents on the
Republican right--Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and Robert Taft. Unlike
Taft's, Gramm's speech is demotic. Only recently has Gramm's accent begun to
thin; he still often forgets his staff's advice to refer to his "mother," not
his "mamma." Unlike Goldwater, Gramm calculates political risks carefully.
Shortly before the November 8 congressional election Gramm made a campaign
appearance in behalf of a young Republican congressional challenger in Arizona.
He listened to the young man deliver a bombastic, foolish speech and afterward
took him aside for some unsweetened advice. "There are only two issues when
running against an incumbent," he said. "Her record, and I'm not a kook. Forget
the feel-good stuff. Say, This is her record; this is what I'm for. If a
subject can't elect you to Congress, don't talk about it."
And unlike Reagan, Gramm does his homework. Reagan was a man of feeling; Gramm
is a man of intellect. His mind burns at a higher wattage than that of any
other senator save Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Reagan never really understood the
institutions he had pledged to reform; Gramm has mastered the details of
American government better than any other national Republican figure. And again
unlike Reagan, Gramm is his own handler. By the time Reagan ran for President
in 1980, he had been a star for more than forty-five years. He expected people
to take care of him. Gramm does not. He carries his own garment bag and does
his own thinking. That cruel joke about Reagan--"It's not that Reagan lacks
principles; it's that he doesn't understand the ones he has"--does not apply to
Gramm. He has thought his principles through, he recognizes that they will
exact substantial human costs, and he has decided that those costs are
outweighed by the potential benefits.
It is this ideological rigor, unsoftened by any of Reagan's telegenic
benignity, that best accounts for Gramm's reputation for "meanness," an
accusation that has been hurled not only by squishy liberals but also by
conservatives. Michael Barone, the increasingly right-tilting co-author of the
Almanac of American Politics, has written of Gramm, "There is a note of anger
to him--a sharp edge of hostility toward those whose view of America is quite
different. In this friendly country, angry candidates--Pat Buchanan, Jerry
Brown are 1992's examples--do not wear well." In her book Life, Liberty and the
Pursuit of Happiness, published last year, Peggy Noonan quotes an
acquaintance's put-down: "'[Gramm's] best friends don't like him.'"
In fact, though, Gramm in person is anything but angry or harsh. He may lack
the anemic quality we call niceness, but he's a witty and polite man. His
friends do seem to like him: he and Senator John McCain, of Arizona--the
gallant ex-POW--spent more than a week last October hopping about the Southwest
together in a tiny aircraft, shared a case of flu, and by day eight were still
swapping jokes with warmth and kindliness. Gramm's marriage has lasted
twenty-five years and is, insofar as outsiders can or ought to judge, a close
one; his two college-age sons seem to be well-adjusted young men. Turnover on
his staff is low; Gramm is not one of those senators who shriek at their
employees or ask them to perform demeaning tasks.
On the other hand, those who know the Senate point out that Gramm is not
popular with his colleagues there, not even the Republicans among them. He
takes few pains to disguise his pride in his ability or his awareness of his
colleagues' limitations. He does not twinkle with good humor, as Reagan did.
Nor does he bother to disguise his fierce pursuit of the presidency.
Presidential candidates used to feign reluctance to take the job. When Franklin
Delano Roosevelt flew to the 1932 Democratic Convention, in Chicago, to accept
his party's nomination in person, many were startled. Until then nominees had
been expected to wait at home for a delegation to arrive on their doorstep and
plead with them to heed their country's call. Even today we retain vague
feelings that the job should seek the man. But for more than a year Gramm has
told anyone who asks--and many who have not asked--that he intends to run for
President in 1996. His directness can shock more circumspect souls. Shortly
after the 1994 election, according to one account I have heard, a prominent
Republican who has been raising money for Jack Kemp for nearly a decade paid a
call on Gramm in the company of one of Kemp's top aides to congratulate Gramm
on his success as chairman of the party's senatorial campaign. After half a
minute or so of pleasantries, Gramm fixed his eyes on his visitor and, looking
past the Kemp aide's reddening face, bluntly got down to business: "You know
and I know that Jack's nowhere in this race. There are only three candidates
worth mentioning: Lamar Alexander, Bob Dole, and me. You've got to back me."
Still, ambitious politicians are not unknown in American life. The presidency
didn't fall into Bill Clinton's lap either. And if Gramm lacks Reagan's ability
to project good cheer through a television camera, so does Bob Dole. Neither
ambition nor the whims of the mass media sufficiently explain Gramm's
unflattering public image. No, if Gramm is thought to be uniquely mean, that is
owing to something more substantial: his uniquely uncompromising politics.
Reaganism in Three Dimensions
Liberalism today plays much the same role in social life that Christianity
played in late Victorian Britain: increasing numbers of people have come to
suspect that it is not valid, even as they find themselves utterly unable to
imagine any alternative source of truth. With the Sea of Faith withdrawn,
Matthew Arnold groaned, this world "Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor
light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. . . ." But Gramm refuses
to cross himself at the liberal chapel. Many conservatives who attended college
in the 1960s were swept up enough in those guilt-tortured years to have
acquired the need to prove to their liberal friends that they are decent folks
despite their repellent ideology: "I'm for cutting spending--except for
antipoverty programs." "I'm conservative--but I consider myself a feminist." "I
object to quotas--but I want vigorous enforcement of the rest of the
civil-rights laws." "I think you're mistaken--but I respect your good
Gramm concedes nothing. "I've never had a campaign that I didn't have an
opponent who was rich, and who had rich parents, telling me about poor people,"
he says. "I'm not going to be cowed by people who want to accuse me of being
anti-poor. I'm not going to be swayed by people who say, 'You have no
compassion.' I have great compassion. I think of the unwed mother who is
working as a cook in a little restaurant, working ten or eleven hours a day.
She is barely making ends meet. It is wrong that people who aren't working are
getting more money than she is. I think she ought to get to keep more of what
she earns. I don't think it's fair that because she is working, she gets no
medical coverage, or has difficulty getting it, and somebody who doesn't work
gets the best in the world."
In Gramm's mind, what that woman needs is for government simply to leave her
alone. "My view on life is very much colored by who I am, and where I grew up,
and how my people succeeded. And by my wife's story. My wife's grandfather came
to this country as an indentured laborer to work in the sugarcane fields. Her
father was the first Asian-American ever to be an officer of a sugar company.
She became chairman of the CFTC [Commodity Futures Trading Commission] under
Reagan and Bush, and regulated sugarcane futures. That's America in action.
Anybody who's gonna try to tell me America doesn't work--they're wasting their
breath. It can't be done. I can't be convinced."
His political philosophy might be summed up as Reaganism in three dimensions,
the third being depth. He does not buy the happy message of the supply-siders
of the early 1980s: low enough tax rates will pump out enough revenues to
obviate any big change in social programs. To be sure, Gramm wants to cut
taxes. On the stump he complains, "In 1950 the average American family with two
children sent one dollar out of every fifty dollars it earned to Washington,
D.C. And they probably thought it was too much. Today that family is sending
one dollar in every four dollars to Washington. In twenty years, if there are
no new programs, . . . the figure will be one dollar out of every three
However, he scorns those who "want the benefits of limited government but not
the costs." Gramm envisions a radical reconception of the functions of the
federal government. He would cheerfully spend more money on defense. "If the
lion and the lamb are about to lie down together in the world," he says, "it's
very important that the United States of America be the lion" (a motto so
pleasing to him that he has had it framed and hung on his office wall). He
would build necessary physical infrastructure--although "whether every airport
in America needs to be a remake of the Taj Mahal or not is an open question."
Beyond that, he says, he would put the federal government on a budget. And the
main targets of his budgeting would be means-tested programs: Medicaid,
Supplemental Security Income, food stamps, low-income energy assistance, and
Aid to Families with Dependent Children. As Gramm puts it, "I'm going to ask
those riding in the wagon to get out and help the rest of us pull it."
Now, Gramm is intimately familiar with the federal budget. He knows perfectly
well that the bulk of federal spending is lavished on middle- and upper-income
taxpayers. And his attack on Big Government would be felt across the board. He
claims that when Secretary of Labor Robert Reich attacked federal business
subsidies in a speech last November, he offered to sponsor a bill eliminating
them. And his plan to reform public and private health insurance would have the
effect of quadrupling or quintupling Medicare's present deductible of
$600-plus. The idea is complicated, but essentially, health insurance and
Medicare for routine expenses would be eliminated. Instead employers would
contribute to special tax-advantaged savings accounts--usually known as
"medical IRAs." The difference between deposits into those accounts and money
actually spent on health care each year would be the saver's to roll over or
pay taxes on and keep. Insurance--whether private or Medicare--would not start
to pick up health costs until after the first $2,500 or $3,000 a year. Since
about 80 percent of Americans spend less than $3,000 a year on health care,
medical IRAs would reorient American medicine away from insurance to direct
payment by patients. The advantages of patient payment are potentially
vast--almost as vast as the likely shock to a middle class that by and large
feels content with the health-care that it gets.
On Social Security, too, Gramm's promise that people who have contributed to
the system will get their money back--and his omission of any promise of
more--clearly implies that Social Security will play a much smaller role for
future retirees than it plays now. Still, Gramm is no neoliberal. For all their
faults, he regards Social Security and Medicare as "earned benefits," which
deserve gentler treatment than means-tested welfare programs. Most of those
he'd like to scrap, and use the money saved to double the per-child tax
exemption to $5,000 from the present $2,450.
When challenged to justify the apparent unfairness of this discrepancy, he
bristles. One set of benefits was paid for, the other wasn't. Isn't that reason
enough for the difference? He angrily rejects any imputation of unfairness.
"I'm trying to help people who are on welfare. I'm not hurting them. The
government hurt them. The government took away from them something more
important than this money. They took away their initiative, they took away a
substantial measure of their freedom, they took away in many cases their
morality. They corroded their morality, their drive, their pride. I want to
help them get that back. . . . I want to do it because I love them, because I
want them to be Americans. And their children and grandchildren will thank us."
A President Gramm would attempt to enact a comprehensive and radical
free-market program, more radical than that of Newt Gingrich's House
Republicans. With the stroke of a pen he would repeal the executive orders that
enforce affirmative action. Environmental and other rules would be subject to a
new regulation requiring Washington to compensate property owners if any
federal rule reduced the value of their holdings by more than 25 percent. But
the issues on which Gramm's attention is fixed are the cost of government to
the ordinary worker and the dangerous allurement of welfare. "Ordinary people"
figure large in his speeches. "America is not a great and powerful country
because the most brilliant and talented people in the world came to live here.
It's ordinary people--people who would have been peasants anywhere else--who
were able to do extraordinary things." That is, Gramm insists, his own
story--but if there's one thing that Phil Gramm isn't, it's an ordinary
The future senator was born in Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1942. His mother's
family name was Scroggins: Gramm knows little more about her family than that
they were Scotch-Irish and that his grandmother's father and grandfather fought
for the Confederacy at Shiloh. Gramm's mother had been divorced young, and she
had been obliged to work for a time in a cotton mill to support her two sons by
that first marriage. Her second husband, Kenneth Gramm, the senator's father,
was the son of an immigrant from Germany. He joined the U.S. Army at age
fifteen, served along the Mexican border during the First World War, and rose
to the rank of sergeant. For many years he taught at the infantry school at
Fort Benning, outside Columbus. Just before he was to have been shipped out to
Europe, after D-Day, he suffered an incapacitating heart attack and stroke. He
lived for the next thirteen years as an invalid. Mrs. Gramm got herself trained
as a practical nurse, and earned a living caring for well-to-do patients in
their homes. That could have been an embittering experience. It wasn't. His
mother "would come home and tell us that basically the difference between them
and us is that they worked harder," Gramm says. "We could be like them. My
mother would drive by the nicest house in Columbus, Georgia, and she would say,
'You could have a house like that if you worked hard for it.'"
At first the young Gramm was not persuaded. He was an indifferent student. He
relishes telling the story of how he failed the third, seventh, and ninth
grades. He diffidently suggests that he may have been dyslexic, or that he may
have resented his disabled father's too-determined efforts to push him along.
Whatever the explanation, his ambition ignited soon after his father's death,
and he graduated from high school with honors, in 1961. He was only the second
person in his entire clan ever to have completed high school; his half-brother
Don White had been the first.
The Army had given the Gramms some insurance money, but it proved insufficient
to pay for both boys' college educations. Gramm's half-brother joined the Army;
Gramm himself moved to Atlanta, held part-time jobs, studied by correspondence,
married his first wife at age nineteen, and took a bachelor's degree in three
years at the University of Georgia and a Ph.D. in economics in a little less
than three years more. He was appointed to the faculty of Texas A&M, the
University of Texas's less prestigious rival, in the fall of 1967. He had made
it into the middle class.
That was a time of upheaval in America, but the turmoil did not touch Professor
Gramm. He was entranced by economics--"These were powerful ideas that explained
the world that I knew"--and saw that he did not know nearly enough about his
discipline. "The University of Georgia did not have a very good graduate
program. Everybody I was competing with knew more math, more stat, than I did.
So I audited all of our Ph.D. programs, and in essence got two Ph.D.s." To this
day Gramm despairs over gaps in his knowledge. "The easiest way for me to get
melancholy is to walk over to the Library of Congress and look down those
endless stacks of books, and realize there's information in there I need to
know and am going to die not knowing."
He claims to have stayed aloof from politics in those early years, except for
voting for Goldwater in 1964. As he tells it, the racial agonies of the
desegregating South left scarcely a mark on him. Asked about it now, he begins
by asserting that segregation was "obviously wrong." But although he attended
segregated schools throughout his childhood, and although the University of
Georgia "was integrated the year before I came or the year after I came" (it
was the year before: January of 1961), the civil-rights struggle seems not to
have galvanized him.
Neither did Vietnam. His half-brother fought in Vietnam, and so did many of
Gramm's students at Texas A&M; for much of that time he himself, as a
graduate student and as a married man, was exempt from service. His support for
America's aims in Vietnam never wavered. "To me, Vietnam was about what Korea
was about: it was about containing communism." He had only one concern about
the war: "that we were losing it."
Gramm worshipped three times a week as an Episcopal acolyte. After his first
marriage ended, he filled his time coaching Boys Club football, and bought a
few rental properties to supplement his income. Those were his 1960s. The Big
Chill notwithstanding, they were also the sixties of millions or tens of
millions of other striving, ambitious young people.
Gramm remarried in 1970. Like Hillary Rodham Clinton, the second Mrs. Gramm
came from a social position loftier than her husband's. Wendy Lee attended
Wellesley and went on to complete a Ph.D. in economics at Northwestern
University. It wasn't Lee's eyes or ankles that initially stirred Gramm's
interest in her: it was her dissertation. He liked it so much that he invited
himself to New York to sit in on her interview for a job at Texas A&M.
Afterward he walked her to the door, helped her on with her coat, and said, "As
a senior member of the faculty, I would be especially interested in you coming
to Texas A&M." This overture, he ruefully reminisces, was not immediately
successful. "She looks at me and [I can see her think] 'Yuck.' So I went back
in and said to the people at the interview table, 'We're going to convince her
to come to Texas A&M, and I'm going to marry her.' So anyway, she did, and
As Wendy Lee Gramm's background parallels Hillary Rodham Clinton's, so would
her role in her husband's Administration. Mrs. Gramm tells friends that she
would downplay politics, that she would set her sights on becoming "the
nation's first Rollerblading First Lady." They don't believe her. She is a
woman of formidable intelligence (she's probably a better technical economist
than her husband) and strong free-market views. Republican marriages formed in
the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s are often riven by a silent ideological
divide: in the tumult of the sixties the wife went left and the husband didn't.
This familiar feature of Washington social life is now coming to its natural
end as the tumult retreats further and further into the past. Unlike George
Bush and Ronald Reagan, Phil Gramm at home hears advice that comes from the
Academia did not content the Gramms for long. Spurred by inflation and rising
taxes, Phil Gramm decided to run for office. For some time he had been
soliciting speaking engagements at eastern Texas chambers of commerce and
publishing articles. (It was an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal that
brought him national attention. The piece pointed out that the world had seemed
in the mid-nineteenth century to be exhausting its supplies of its main
lighting fuel, whale oil. Prices rose and rose--until some venturesome
profit-seeker tried burning petroleum instead.) Emboldened by the applause of
his chamber-of-commerce audiences, Gramm decided to challenge then-Senator
Lloyd Bentsen in the Texas Democratic primary in 1976. It was a breathtaking
act of bravado, a formidable gamble. Bentsen was a rich man, an effective
senator, and a skilled campaigner who had dispatched George Bush in 1970. Even
as a publicity stunt, running against Bentsen was risky. But the race was no
stunt: at the beginning Gramm truly believed he would win. "I'd never lost at
anything in my life," he says. He was crushed: he received 28 percent of the
vote. He was also broke. He had put $50,000--all the money the Gramms
possessed--into the campaign, and every dime of it had been spent. He decided
to try again anyway, and in 1978 entered the House of Representatives as a
Democrat for a district that stretched from the northern reaches of Houston to
the southern suburbs of Fort Worth, and that encompassed the seat of Texas
A&M, in College Station.
Almost immediately Gramm embroiled himself in conflict with the head of the
Texas Democratic delegation, Jim Wright, then the House majority leader. "Jim
Wright could never understand me. He kept wondering what it was I wanted. He
kept asking my Democratic colleagues from Texas, who'd come to Congress the
same year I did, what was it I wanted." In Gramm's account, Wright held out the
apple of temptation, explaining how conservative Democrats could be excused
from certain votes if the leadership didn't need them and how they could remain
free to criticize the party at home, and offering him choice committee
assignments. Finally, after the Democrats' 1980 debacle, Gramm extracted from
Wright the assignment he had coveted from the beginning: the Budget Committee.
Wright, who resigned in disgrace from the speakership in 1989, remembers things
a little differently. In a written statement he recalls that Gramm "came to me
pleading for my help [to get onto the Budget Committee]. I explained . . . that
these . . . were choice plums reserved for colleagues on whom the Democratic
caucus could count when the chips were down. [Gramm] promised to be [a] team
player. . . . A relic of the old Texas school which values a handshake over a
gilt-edged bond, I took [him] at his word."
Whether he forced or begged his way onto the Budget Committee, Gramm quickly
dominated it. In his memoirs the former Reagan budget director David Stockman
identifies Gramm as one of only three representatives--Jim Jones, of Oklahoma,
then the chairman of the Budget Committee, and Leon Panetta, then a Democratic
member of the committee, being the other two--who thoroughly understood the
budget. Stockman, not an indulgent judge of others' weaknesses, unhesitatingly
describes Gramm as "brilliant"; Gramm became his partner and floor leader in
Gramm willingly left the pleasures of tax cutting to others and instead assumed
the unpopular chore of producing matching cuts in domestic expenditures. This
was another of Gramm's gambles, one certain to win him the undying enmity of
the Democratic leadership. He plunged ahead regardless. With Delbert L. Latta,
of Ohio, as Republican co-sponsor in the House, Gramm and Stockman
outmaneuvered the leadership of the Democratic Party, beat back the alternative
budget drafted by Jim Jones, and won the day for the Administration-backed
Gramm-Latta budget in May of 1981.
Those were fevered days for conservatives, dramatic days. As the crucial vote
neared, Gramm's bloc of conservative southern Democrats, the "Boll Weevils,"
came under intense pressure from the Democratic leadership to stay with the
party. Jim Jones had designed a less draconian plan of his own, and many of the
Boll Weevils felt tempted to heed their party leadership. In his memoirs David
Stockman tells what happened next. At a meeting in the office of the most
important of the Boll Weevils, Mississippi's Sonny Montgomery, "the group's
chairman, Charlie Stenholm of Texas, asked the members for their opinion of
[the Jim Jones alternative]."
"One by one they said it was a reasonable compromise and that it would allow
them to work with the Democratic leadership while at the same time promoting
President Reagan's goals.
Gramm waited until everyone had said his piece. . . . It was clear to him,
Gramm said, that if William Barrett Travis, commander of the American forces at
the Alamo, had asked for a debate instead of drawing the famous line in the
sand, then "there never would have been a battle."
This was followed by five minutes of shouting. Jack Hightower of Texas
pointedly reminded Gramm that everyone who crossed the line at the Alamo died.
There was a murmur of assent at this.
"Yes," said Gramm, "but the ones who didn't cross the line died, too. Only no
one remembers their names." "
Gramm-Latta carried the day. Then, after the Senate also passed an
Administration-approved budget, Gramm and Stockman crafted Gramm-Latta II, a
package of spending cuts that "reconciled" the difference between revenues and
spending in the budget, and dashed what remained of the Democratic leadership's
hopes of rendering the Reagan Administration's program stillborn.
At first it seemed that Gramm had bought his success in 1981 at the expense of
his political career. The Republicans lost twenty-six seats in the 1982 midterm
elections, and House Speaker Tip O'Neill and Jim Wright seized the opportunity
to take revenge on the Democratic defectors. Gramm was stripped of his Budget
Committee seat. He promptly resigned from the Democratic Party and reaffiliated
as a Republican. Then, although he was not obliged to, he resigned his seat and
asked for a special election. It was a desperate fight, but Gramm's stock quip
to his campaign audiences, "I had to choose between Tip O'Neill and y'all, and
I decided to stand with y'all," achieved the desired effect: he won his seat
back. The following year he ran for the Senate seat left open by the
resignation of John Tower, Texas's first post-Reconstruction Republican
senator, and won again.
Fate Steps In
In his first year as a senator, a time when tradition calls for deference to
the senior members of the institution, Gramm rolled the dice again, and
produced the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction amendment. In what Gramm's
co-producer Warren Rudman, of New Hampshire, described as "a bad idea whose
time has come," the law set a series of deficit targets and instituted
mechanisms for automatic across-the-board reductions in both domestic and
defense spending if those targets were not met. For conservatives, who had lost
control of the House in 1982 and whose grip on the Senate was tenuous at best
in 1985, Gramm-Rudman represented an appalling risk. It conceded the principle
that the defense budget should be constrained by budgetary limits rather than
by the Pentagon's estimation of Soviet capabilities. Worse still, it took no
position at all as to whether the deficit targets would be met by raising taxes
or by reducing spending. Gramm cheerfully bet the house anyway, and defends his
bet to this day.
"The beauty of the Gramm-Rudman idea was that it put the fat in the fire," he
says. "We could then put out the fire either by raising taxes or by cutting
spending. So different people could see it producing different results. And
since we had nothing like a majority on this issue, it was necessary that it be
viewed as a tool, so that people would think they could do various things with
the tool. I thought I could do something.
"I didn't see it as a gamble. We were losing on defense, we were losing on
taxes. No, it wasn't a gamble. At that point it was our best hope."
And to a degree it worked. Over the next five years spending growth did slow
and the deficit did shrink. True, Gramm-Rudman's deficit targets were often met
only by chicanery --by anticipating revenues and moving expenses
off-budget--but by fiscal year 1989 the deficit had slipped to three percent of
gross domestic product and the federal government's share of the economy had
inched down to 22.1 percent, roughly where it had stood in 1980.
The later 1980s turned out to be fallow years for Gramm. After the loss of the
Senate by the Republicans in 1986, Gramm could no longer enact legislation. His
greatest accomplishment in those days was a negative one: he foresaw the danger
in partly deregulating the savings-and-loan industry. In 1982 Gramm had voted
against the act that freed savings-and-loans to enter nonhousing lines of
business. He says, "I was always worried about this sleepy little regulator of
housing lending [the Home Loan Bank Board, which oversaw thrifts] . . .
suddenly regulating people who were residual earners in the fried-chicken
business." As the financial condition of the S&Ls deteriorated and
regulators closed in, Gramm introduced legislation to tax S&Ls to beef up
the deposit-insurance fund. This prescience alienated him from the rest of the
Texas delegation, because Texas was home to more troubled thrifts than any
other state. And it tossed him into renewed combat with Jim Wright, the
thrifts' main defender in Congress--a fact that may even have helped inspire
Gramm's suspicion of the faltering industry.
The pace of events quickened again for Gramm after 1989. But this time the
course he took nearly proved disastrous--at least for his reputation with his
conservative base: he involved himself in the negotiations that led to
President Bush's ill-fated 1990 budget deals. The details are serpentine, but
in their wake Gramm-Rudman had vanished and the top rate of income tax had
hopped to 31 percent from Ronald Reagan's 28 percent. Gramm now defends his
actions in 1990 on grounds of party loyalty and personal affection for George
Bush. But two other considerations must have entered his mind as well. At the
time, George Bush seemed certain to be re-elected to the presidency in 1992.
Bush's support, or at least his benign neutrality, would thus be indispensable
to anyone planning a run for the presidency in 1996--especially if that anyone
hailed from Bush's home state, and doubly especially considering that there was
a sitting Vice President who would have to be knocked aside. Alternatively, if
Bush's backing could not be won, Gramm would need an iron grip on the loyalties
of Texas--and its big donors--in the run-up to the 1996 cycle. In order to
clamp that grip on the state, Gramm has retreated slightly in recent years from
his accustomed ultrapure anti-pork-barrel stance. He helped pull the huge
supercollider project to Texas and championed the Houston-based manned space
station, while also showing new zeal for Texas's agriculture interests, among
them the much-ridiculed mohair subsidy. Those prizes also required presidential
good will--which helped to pull him into Bush's budgetary thickets. And unlike
Newt Gingrich, who broke ranks with Bush, Gramm, once stuck, could not easily
walk away. In the end Gramm cast his vote against the budget deal, but
Washington conservatives may have felt irritated at Gramm in 1990; back home he
was more popular than ever. He won re-election that year with 60.2 percent of
the vote, a larger margin than any Texas senatorial candidate had garnered
since 1958. He demonstrated stunning fund-raising powers, too. A single 1990
event, staged in the Houston Astrodome, raked in well over $2 million. "You
can't be more powerful in Washington than you are at home" is a Gramm maxim.
Awed, his Senate colleagues named him chairman of the Republicans' overall
senatorial fund-raising drive for the 1992 and 1994 election cycles.
Then, as movie serials used to intone, fate stepped in. To the astonishment of
everyone--not least fainthearted Democratic hopefuls like Mario Cuomo and Bill
Bradley--the Bush Administration disintegrated and the Republicans found
themselves out of power. Dan Quayle was suddenly struck from the Republican
line of succession, and a new job needed to be filled: leader of the
opposition. Gramm grabbed it.
While Dole and even
Gingrich took months to decide that they would not negotiate with Clinton on a
health-care plan, and while other Republicans, such as Kemp, Dick Cheney, and
Lamar Alexander, vanished onto the speaking circuit, Gramm immediately threw
himself into implacable confrontation. I think Hillary Clinton and I were the
only two people who read the whole bill. She loved it and I hated it," he later
said. He didn't just hate its rationing, or the 15 percent payroll tax that, he
calculated, would probably be needed by decade's end to finance it. After all,
he says, "Congress messes up industries every day. But I believed that if
people understood that this bill took away something more important than their
money, their job, their health care, if they understood it took away their
freedom, that was the little stone with which we could slay Goliath." He
assembled a panel of senators and representatives to travel the country
campaigning against the plan. As conservative criticism punctured the plan and
public support leaked away, other Republicans rushed to take up the position
that Gramm had occupied months before. But he had been there first, when the
spot had looked dangerous, and he did not let anyone forget it.
The New Republican Heartland
In his biography of John Maynard Keynes, Robert Skidelsky warns against the
easy assumption that "biographical subjects are much more frequently products
of their backgrounds than of their times." Or places. Probably nowhere else in
America but Texas -- and certainly in no other large state -- could a man with
such radical views on economics, and such relatively bland views on social
issues, rise so high so fast. Nor is Gramm alone. Two of the three most senior
Republicans in the House -- the majority leader, Dick Armey, and the majority
whip, Tom DeLay -- are also Texans who combine economic radicalism with
understated positions on the hot-button issues that excite the Republican
faithful elsewhere in the South. A fourth Texan, Bill Archer, chairs the Ways
and Means Committee. He has been musing about replacing the income tax with a
consumption or value-added tax.
Historically, the Republican Party has taken its tone from one particular state
or region at a time: Henry Cabot Lodge's Massachusetts, Robert Taft's Ohio,
Ronald Reagan's southern California. Today Gramm's Texas supplies the party
with its strongest themes and ideas. Except for Florida, Texas is the most
urbanized state in the South: more than 80 percent of the population lives in
cities. (In Newt Gingrich's Georgia the figure is a little above 60 percent.)
And the Texas Republican Party, since its emergence in the 1970s as a serious
political force, has been a metropolitan party, drawing its explosively growing
strength -- it elected three times as many officeholders in 1994 as in 1982 --
first from Dallas and environs, a little later from Houston, and only very
recently from the rest of the state. The Harris County victory celebration last
November 8 filled the exhibition room of a southwest-Houston hotel with
expensively tailored young lawyers.
The people who live in and around Texas's cities earn their livings in
increasingly sophisticated ways. Although far from wealthy (household income
ranks thirty-second in the nation), Texans have managed to diversify their
economy beyond oil and agriculture. High-technology companies around Austin and
Dallas, and shipping and financial-services companies near Houston and Dallas,
employ a rapidly growing population of college graduates, many of them
newcomers to the state. Of Texas's 17 million people, 4.3 million were born in
the other forty-nine states, and another 1.7 million were born abroad.
In some southern states -- Virginia is the clearest example -- newcomers have
leaned to the left of the rest of the population. That hasn't happened in
Texas. On the contrary: Louis Dubose, the editor of the liberal Texas
Observer newspaper, argues that the heart of fundamentalist Christianity in
Texas is not the countryside but the megachurches that line the interstate
connecting Dallas and Fort Worth and the beltways around other big cities. The
Christian conservatives at the Texas state Republican convention last year,
Dubose jokes, weren't wearing farmers' "gimme" caps; they were wearing the
plastic pocket-protectors beloved of engineers and computer designers. Just as
Islamic fundamentalism wins converts not in the villages but among the uprooted
and semi-modernized people of the cities of Algeria and Egypt, so Christian
fundamentalism in Texas seems to have won some of its following among the
first-generation college graduates who have left small towns in eastern Texas
or the Midwest to work for Hewlett-Packard or Electronic Data Systems in Dallas
Their religious beliefs do not, however, blind high-tech Christians to the fact
that they draw their livelihoods from an integrated world economy.
Conservatives throughout the South flirt dangerously with protectionism, Newt
Gingrich not least. Gramm never has. He will, though, take trouble to
accommodate his constituents' social views. Although wary of school prayer
("It's got to be very strictly limited, and it's got to be voluntary. You can't
empower zealots"), he opposes abortion, and in his 1984 campaign for the Senate
he made gleeful use of the fact that his opponent, Lloyd Doggett, had received
money from a fund-raising event at a gay strip club. Last year he declined to
condemn California's Proposition 187, which denies schooling and other benefits
to illegal aliens. He artfully weaves religious imagery into his speeches.
There is a religious right in Texas, and it can sometimes score victories. Last
summer, for example, an old Goldwaterite named Tom Pauken mobilized
discontented prayer enthusiasts and abortion opponents to elect Fred Meyer, a
Gramm ally, from the chairmanship of the Texas party and to install Pauken in
Meyer's place. But on closer inspection personal antagonisms and resentments
provide a much better explanation of what happened in Texas last summer. Meyer
is a wealthy Dallas industrialist and a superb fund-raiser, at ease with the
big donors who supply one third of the Texas party's resources. (The rest comes
from direct mail and telemarketing.) Pauken, a former chairman of the College
Republican National Committee and the head of the ACTION agency in the Reagan
Administration, hails from the other side of the tracks and -- despite his
Roman Catholic background and secular outlook -- adeptly spoke to like-minded
outsiders in the Texas party.
The power of people like Pauken and his supporters is, however, necessarily
episodic. It costs more than $2 million a year to run the Texas party between
elections. And because Texas is so huge and its population is so widespread,
campaigning there is more expensive still. Mammon remains a vastly more useful
ally than God in Texas politics, and Fred Meyer will be working for Gramm in
Gramm hopes to persuade Republican primary voters, especially Christian
conservatives, that his economic conservatism is cultural conservatism. "If you
are talking about values issues," he says, "what is more value-laden than the
welfare system? What is more value-related than the tax cuts? Aren't we talking
about values when we're talking about stopping the subsidizing of conceiving
illegitimate children? Aren't we talking about values when we're talking about
cutting spending and doubling the dependent exemption for children?"
Values talk inevitably raises the question of Gramm's own morality. His
political conduct has been called into question at least twice. In 1989 the
Federal Elections Commission fined his campaign $30,000 for violations relating
to his 1984 Senate race. Then there was what some see as a $50,000 personal
gift from a Texas homebuilder and savings-and- loan operator, Jerry Stiles. At
Gramm's request Stiles, a longtime supporter, flew a crew of carpenters to
Maryland to finish a summer house Gramm owns on the Eastern Shore. Gramm paid
Stiles for the work, but an investigation later found that Stiles had charged
Gramm $50,000 less than the cost of the job. Then, when Stiles's S&L ran
into trouble, he asked Gramm for help. There is no evidence that Gramm
interceded improperly for Stiles or that Gramm even knew of Stiles's $50,000
loss. When the loss finally came to light, Gramm wrote Stiles a check for
$50,000 and laid the matter before the Senate Ethics Committee. The committee
ruled that Gramm had owed Stiles nothing, and Stiles refunded Gramm's,money.
Stiles seems to have hoped to curry favor with Gramm; five years later,
however, no evidence has appeared that the currying worked or that Gramm
received anything like an illegal gratuity.
Still, it's a strange story, given that this hyperideological. politician rests
much of his case to his fellow Republicans on his organizational acumen. Gramm
contends that a run for the presidency will cost more than $44 million in 1996.
"That's a lot of money to raise when somebody can give you only a thousand
dollars. I think management and organization are things that are greatly
undervalued in politics. The question is, who can put together this
forty-four-million-dollar corporate entity? Who can set up a structure to
manage it? No one running for office has ever had to do what you're going to
have to do in this election to win the nomination, and that is you're going to
have to raise all this money early, you're going to have to run in fifteen or
twenty states at the same time, without being the party nominee, without having
every political operative in the party working for you -- which they will after
you get the nomination."
An Adventuresome Party
Of all the similarities between Gramm and Clinton, the one that will have the
greatest effect on the 1996 campaign is their agreement that one of the most
important issues facing the nation is the apparent dwindling of the prospects
of the middle-class American family. Both of them keenly remember a time, not
so very long ago, when opportunities seemed to abound. Today's world seems
somehow tighter, less expansive. Clinton's explanation of what has gone wrong
is technical: changes in the world economy, new technologies and ways of work
that have raised the value of trained labor relative to unskilled and
semi-skilled. Gramm's analysis is much blunter: "We've gotten off track. It's
like a football team. We stopped winning because we stopped doing the things
that made us winners. We started to reward people who were doing things that
did not represent productive behavior. We started to penalize people who did."
It's not some global economic climacteric that is ailing America, in Gramm's
eyes: American living standards are eroding because of decisions made in
America -- because the productive are overtaxed and the unproductive are
Fiercely and uncompromisingly, Gramm intends to reverse that distribution of
rewards and penalties. Nervous Republicans may hear in his fierceness an
ominous warning of a debacle to come -- another 1964. But the country's mood
has shifted dramatically since those days. Republicans seeking national office
need no longer hew to the center.
Gramm's prediction that the list of serious Republican presidential aspirants
will narrow to himself, Bob Dole, and Lamar Alexander looks more accurate by
the day. Dan Quayle can appeal to Republican sentiment that he was treated
unfairly by the detested liberal media, and to the growing national consensus
that his controversial "Murphy Brown" remarks have proved right after all. But
he will be campaigning bearing the stigma of defeat and without an
institutional base. Richard Nixon pulled off the trick in 1968, but -- to adapt
the joke that will haunt Quayle for the rest of his career -- Dan Quayle is no
Richard Nixon. Republicans don't like to admit it, but they know that the
reason the media image of Quayle as a lightweight has endured is that he is a
lightweight. At any rate, enough of them know it to deny Quayle the 1996
Ex officio, Pete Wilson ought to rank high on any list of potential nominees.
Not only can he tap the fantastic wealth of California, but he has artfully
crafted a new ideological position that might be crudely summed up as Go left
on abortion (he's pro-choice), right on race (immigration and affirmative
action), and up the middle on economics. And yet Wilson bears two daunting
handicaps: as governor, he raised taxes to balance his budget -- a sin he has
since tried to expiate by calling for a 15 percent tax cut -- and in the 1994
campaign he repeatedly promised to serve out his term as governor.
Among the other prominent governors, William Weld, of Massachusetts, saw his
hopes run aground on the rocks of the recession of the early 1990s. To lift the
veto that the party's social conservatives would put on him for his support for
abortion and gay rights, he would need a breathtaking record of tax and
spending cuts. He hasn't got it. Tommy Thompson, of Wisconsin, and John Engler,
of Michigan, have dropped no hints that they are considering a run. As for
Christine Whitman, of New Jersey, despite her tax-cutting, she elicits
enthusiasm only as a vice-presidential prospect.
The year 1996 ought to have been Jack Kemp's year. Kemp is the only other
Republican to have offered a program as coherent, as principled, and as
intensely felt as Gramm's. Throughout his career he has championed conservatism
with a smiling face--which is why he has become so vulnerable to the accusation
that his conservatism is out of date. Had he resigned from President Bush's
Cabinet over the abandonment of the "no new taxes" pledge, he would have sealed
his claim on the 1996 nomination. Instead he is exiting into history as a man
who never quite seized his moment.
The collapse of Kemp's candidacy leaves Gramm alone on the Republican right.
That might attract other conservatives, including the most powerful of them
all, House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But it won't be easy for Gingrich to plunge
in. Enacting the Contract With America will occupy him late into 1995. If he
spends time campaigning and the contract falters, he will open himself to
damaging accusations within the party. A Gingrich presidential campaign could
also spark uncomfortable demands that he release the names of the contributors
to his political-action committee, GOPAC. Besides, Gingrich has just won the
job he spent twenty years working for. He would have to be a very discontented
personality indeed to jeopardize it by immediately reaching for another one.
The basis of Robert Dole's claim is, essentially, seniority. He ran for Vice
President in 1976, finished second in the 1988 primaries, and serves now as the
Senate majority leader. He is hugely popular inside the party. Even
conservatives who resented his antipathy to supply-side economics in the 1980s
have made their peace with him.
Dole's greatest political weakness (or is it his greatest strength?) is his
allergy to ideas. He mistrusts them, and he mistrusts people who have them.
It's hard to imagine what a President Dole would spend his days doing --
except, of course, for building a U. S. ethanol industry second to none. Even
so, he exudes power. One Republican compares the Dole machine to the Red Army
in its great days: maybe it's creaky and anachronistic, but nothing on earth
can match its mass and firepower.
If Dole disdains ideology, Lamar Alexander is attempting to transcend it. He
had originally planned to run on a platform of congressional reform: "Cut their
pay and send them home." That message, obviously, packs less punch among
Republicans today than it did six months ago -- so Alexander is campaigning as
an "outsider" against the Washington "insiders" Gramm and Dole. He hopes to
attract party moderates with his friendly face and speaking style, while
winning over conservatives by outlining big -- though vague -- changes in the
way Washington does business.
On the face of it this would seem an unpromising strategy. Alexander, after
all, served in the Bush Cabinet as Secretary of Education after two successful
terms as a centrist probusiness governor of Tennessee. Never before in his
political career has he evidenced any sign of unhappiness with the way the
United States is governed. But since 1992 he has struck populist notes whenever
he can, if not always on key. Visiting the lower-Manhattan editorial offices of
The Wall Street Journal one day last August to make his pitch, he
arrived in a polo shirt and hiking boots, looking less like the Last Angry Man
than like someone who had paid an image consultant $400 an hour to tell him how
to dress like Cincinnatus relinquishing the plough.
Any political consultant would have to rank Dole or Alexander as a safer choice
than Gramm. Their ideas are less radical, their visages less homely, their
personalities less prickly. But, curiously, the staid Republican Party seems to
be the party that pays less attention to safety. The roster of recent
Democratic presidential candidates is gray with moderation and risk-aversion:
Clinton, Dukakis, Mondale. It is the party of Reagan and Gingrich that is the
adventuresome party, the party that thrills to political risk. Nominating Gramm
would be the biggest risk yet. And yet since last November, Republicans have
become even more willing than usual to trust their luck.
David Frum writes the column "Political Economy" for The American Spectator.
He is the author of Dead Right (1994).
Copyright © 1995 by The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.