Sen. Phil Gramm, who announced Tuesday that he won’t run for a fourth term in 2002, has plenty of reasons to quit the Senate. He mentioned the most self-serving ones in his farewell speech. Gramm declared that he had accomplished everything he set out to do—balance the budget, cut spending, defeat communism, and reform welfare (all almost single-handedly, to hear Gramm tell it). He also says he wants to try a new career, which he’d be too old to do if he stayed till 2009. (He’s already 59.)
And his critics stated the less generous reasons. The Republicans have lost the Senate majority he craved—click here for a funny story about Gramm and the majority—and Gramm has surrendered his precious banking committee chairmanship. “He didn’t even start talking about this till Jeffords switched,” says Harvey Kronberg, editor of the Quorum Report, a Texas political tip sheet. “That took the joy out of the game.”
But there may be one more reason, deep in Gramm’s reptilian brain, for him to give up on elective office: President George W. Bush. President Bush is a rebuke to Gramm’s life purpose. Gramm’s career was premised on the notion that a Texan who is ugly, smart, hardworking, and mean could rise to the Oval Office (LBJ, redux). But his disastrous 1996 presidential campaign—the event he spent his life building toward—proved that dreadfully wrong. Then the 2000 election showed that a Texas politician in every way his opposite, genial, handsome, lazy, and—I’m sure in Gramm’s mind—dumb, could jog into the presidency.
Before you feel a jot of sympathy for Gramm, however, recall that he is the kind soul who once wrote to a vanquished opponent. “I feel so sorry for your many problems, but you deserve them.” Feel so sorry for Gramm’s many problems, but he deserves them.
Since Gramm launched his political career in the late ‘70s, he has benefited from one of the strangest prejudices of politics: that meanness is a synonym for integrity. The Gramm Fallacy—which he has cultivated relentlessly (with, for example, jokes like these)—is that his coldness, orneriness, and homeliness signify principle and purity. No politician this unappealing could be anything less than worthy.
Gramm rose from a hardscrabble Georgia childhood to an economics professorship at Texas A&M. In the mid-’70s he thrust himself forward into Democratic politics on a platform of “Government Is the Enemy.” (Why Democratic politics? Because that was the way to get ahead in Texas.) He bulled his way into Congress in 1978. He came as close to libertarianism as party politics permits, arguing that all Americans needed to wean themselves from the public teat. He would make rich and poor suffer so that all might live in greater freedom. When Reagan was elected president, Gramm—the brain behind the conservative “Boll Weevil” Democrats—allied with him to chop the (non-military) budget and cut taxes. In 1983, Democrats enraged with Gramm’s treachery booted him from the House Budget Committee. Gramm quit the Democrats, resigned his seat, joined the GOP, and won his seat back in a special election, thus making himself a Republican hero.
Once established in the GOP, Gramm won a Senate seat in 1984. He has barely campaigned since, facing very weak opposition in 1990 and 1996. Gramm became one of the most compelling champions of Reagan conservatism, setting those “pulling the wagon” (us hardworking Americans) against those “riding in the wagon” (those lazy no-goodniks). Gramm told stories of his friend, a Texas printer named Dickey Flatt, and vowed that he would not support any government program unless it was worth taking money out of the pocket of ol’ Dickey. Gramm came up with the automatic deficit-cutting mechanism of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act and marshaled Republicans to defeat the Clinton health plan. Gramm, who believes you catch more flies with a grenade than with sugar, quickly learned to use the rules of the Senate to stymie rivals, and his willingness to hold up the occasional spending bill and vituperate against big government solidified his reputation as a man of principle.
But Gramm’s reputation was never very deserved. At the start of his career, as my Slate colleague William Saletan argued in a 1995 Mother Jones story, Gramm preached a conservatism in which all Americans would have to sacrifice. But over time, Gramm has shucked any pretense of libertarianism. Gramm spoke of belt-tightening, but forced it only on folks he didn’t need, notably immigrants and the poor. He began his career railing against corporate subsidies, but he never pulled the trigger. Instead he became one of the biggest recipients of campaign contributions from energy, banking, health-care, and insurance companies. As an economist, Gramm knows that farm subsidies grossly waste taxpayer money, but he has never moved against them. And Gramm became one of Congress’ leading pork dealers: He once bragged that he steered so much government spending to Texas that he was getting trichinosis. Gramm, who once claimed that all Americans needed to sacrifice, excluded anyone who gave him money, voted for him, or lived in Texas: They never had to get off the wagon. (One of his rivals coined a term for Gramm’s habit of going home to Texas to take credit for spending bills he has nothing to do with: “Grammstanding.”)
Gramm has always been more passionate about the presidency than policy. He is a pure political calculator: Before he switched parties, he polled to make sure he would win re-election as a Republican. Gramm tailored his economic conservatism in order to build a national base of supporters. He rejiggered his views on social issues for the same reason. Gramm has no interest in social conservatism. He tried to invest in a soft-core porn movie in the early ‘70s, and he once told religious right leaders, “I ain’t running for preacher.” He doesn’t really care about abortion, homosexuality, or school prayer. But Gramm exploits them happily. In his 1984 Senate race, he made the fact that his Democratic opponent accepted a contribution from a gay group the centerpiece of his strategy. Gramm endorsed a constitutional ban on abortion in his ‘96 presidential campaign.
Gramm’s presidential campaign was meticulously planned. He raised a fortune. He carefully positioned himself as the only alternative to Robert Dole. And he utterly flopped. Gramm ended up spending more than $20 million to win eight delegates, and accomplished the impossible: He made Steve Forbes handsome, Pat Buchanan compassionate, and Bob Dole jolly. “He was really uniquely unsuited to be a presidential candidate,” says Rutgers political science professor Ross Baker. “He is diabolically smart, but he makes no concessions to small talk and does not do well communicating with people he feels are his intellectual inferiors.”
What killed Gramm in ‘96 was not that he’s hypocritical or too ambitious or ugly or even condescending. What killed him was that he has a deeply gloomy view of the world. Gramm lives on fear. We’re on an escalator to hell. His presidential campaign was premised on the notion that America would be unrecognizable in 20 years unless he was elected president. He was not capable of explaining how he would inspire America to magnificence, only how he would prevent disaster. Raised in miserable economic circumstances by a chilly, ambitious mother, Gramm never trusts that anything will get better. He sees enemies everywhere. This was a fine world view for the Senate, which is the great negative body in American politics. In the Senate, one man has the power to stop the world from turning, if he tries hard enough. It is heaven for a naysayer like Gramm.
But negativism may cripple Gramm outside the Senate. Gramm wants to go run something. He has been touted for the presidency of Texas A&M. He also seems interested in replacing Alan Greenspan at the Fed or in running a company or a Cabinet department. All these jobs seem deeply unsuitable. A CEO or college president has to inspire. The Fed chairman needs to instill confidence. But Gramm’s specialty is deflating and destroying confidence.
The editorial pages of the Washington Post and New York Times—America’s political newspapers of record—have so far ignored Gramm’s departure. They have bestowed on him none of the grand reckoning that is usually due to national figures. He is almost forgotten already. He has a rare quality in a successful politician: He is a man smaller than life.