s if it weren't bad enough that Jesse Helms is leaving, Phil Gramm, too, is "moving on," to use a recently popular phrase. Thus are we right types losing our two favorite, and most stalwart, senators. Each is judged irreplaceable, indispensable, and each may be, though Gramm bristles at the suggestion: "As my grandmama used to say, 'The graveyard is full of indispensable men.'" Plus, the Founders set it up so that "it shouldn't matter who's here [in Washington]." Moreover, "Senators often say to me, 'You said, or did, exactly what I wanted to do.' But if I hadn't been here, maybe they would have."
Don't know about that one. For about 20 years, Phil Gramm has been the conservatives' and the libertarians' great champion and explicator. He has been almost a one-man band in defending and explaining what is sometimes called quaintly "economic freedom." He was about the only one in Washington who really gave a rip about property rights. In many ways, he has been the office-holding equivalent of the columnist and economist Thomas Sowell, a splendid cuss.
It is almost universally acknowledged that Gramm is brainy, principled, and fearless. It is also almost universally alleged that he is not a likable, certainly not a lovable, man, and that this hampered his effort to go further: to be president. Some of us have long held that if America doesn't like Phil Gramm, America is nuts. What's not to like about . . . well, take a typical Gramm moment, one that has entered the lore about him, lovingly passed around by Gramm fans, or, as we have sometimes been tagged, "Gramm crackers." He's debating education policy with some lady who represents the education establishment. The exchange goes something like this:
True, Gramm tends toward the mordant, and he doesn't mesh with an Oprah-ized, schmoozified culture of "niceness" and drippy sentiment. Many people have pointed out and they're not entirely wrong that Gramm is "no diplomat" and even "no politician." Yet he is certainly some kind of politician: He got elected, and reelected, and reelected, by whopping margins in Texas, a state of 20 million people. Gramm was an academic, an intellectual, and an individualist, yes, but he was also a canny pol, as evidenced not only by his victory margins but by his record in the House and Senate.
Announcing his retirement, he declared that he had achieved everything he had come to Washington to do: He (with the help of one or two others, maybe) had balanced the budget, cut taxes, moved power out of Washington, opened up trade, deregulated, rebuilt the military, and "rolled back the borders of Communism." He says that he never would have stood down if Al Gore had made it to the White House he would've needed to stay as a blocker. But with Bush in, he felt the moment was right. The Republicans' loss of their Senate majority, he insists, had nothing to do with it. When Gramm talks, you tend to believe him, no matter what you think of him. It's part of his singularity.
The Gramm story is oft told, but worth recapping. He was born at Fort Benning, Ga., to a humble military couple. Early on, his father became an invalid, leaving the family in stricken circumstances. Young Gramm was held back from several grades, and was eventually sent to military school, to straighten up and fly right. He did. He went to the University of Georgia, earning a B.A. and then staying there for a Ph.D. in economics. He never wanted to be a politician at least at first. The great dream of his life was to become a tenured professor (an understandable goal for the ambitious product of a family that had never enjoyed much education). He got what he wanted, at Texas A&M, at the age of 30.
Before long, he was nosing about in politics. Intent on propagating his views, he wrote, as he tells it, to "150-odd civic clubs in East Texas, saying, 'If you want someone to come speak on any one of these dozen subjects, I'm your man.'" A single invitation came in: from a Lions Club in the tiny town of Wortham, "just north of Mexia." There he met the printer Dicky Flatt, who would become his emblem of the hard-working common man, whose back guvmint needed to get and stay off. Gramm's message that day was his classic: "Freedom is a great thing, America has too little of it, the government's too big, too powerful, and too expensive." ("It still is," adds the senator.)
In time 1978 he got himself elected to Congress, as a Democrat (a natural thing for a Georgian and Texan to be). When Reagan took office, Gramm realized that here was a man "who wanted to do what I had always dreamed of doing." He worked with that president to scale back the government, leading the Democratic leadership to boot him from the Budget Committee. Gramm could have switched parties on the spot but he didn't think it was right, opting to resign and present himself as a Republican in a special election. To the people, he uttered, over and over, his semi-famous line, "I had to choose between Tip O'Neill and y'all, and I decided to stand with y'all."
Gramm says today that the Democratic party is, in fact, socialist, "if by 'socialist' you mean the redistribution of wealth, more decisions made by the central government no question about it. My grandmother thought of the Democrats as the party of the people. What they are is the party of government." They benefit from economic ignorance, too, because the subject "is very hard to understand." Trade, in particular, is "the toughest issue I've ever dealt with, and it is also the one I feel most passionate about." The problem is, "Free trade is counterintuitive. It's like skiing. Everyone benefits from trade, but a few people benefit from protectionism, and they know who they are." They also tend to be well organized and entrenched while the vast, trade-blessed majority remain pretty much clueless.
During Clinton's two terms, Gramm was unyielding. That president probably had no stronger foe in the Senate. Of Clinton, Gramm says, "He had an ability to communicate, like Reagan," but, unlike Reagan, "he was willing to say anything. He could do a 180 on a dime, because he was unencumbered by principles or values, as far as I could tell." Clinton could have done "real harm" if he had "tended to his business, if he had focused all his energies on his political agenda, instead of constantly throwing up roadblocks for himself. The good news is that, in eight years, Bill Clinton did America relatively little harm." His domestic program was thwarted, in large measure because a Republican House was elected in 1994. Newt Gingrich, for Gramm, is something of a tragic figure: "He was the reason the Republicans won control of the House, and, in the end, he had to leave so they could keep control of it."
As for Clinton's foreign policy, it was "weak," but "without Ivan at the gate, it didn't make any difference."
If that Clinton domestic agenda was indeed thwarted, one of the reasons was that Gramm stood early and immovable against nationalized health care. He said, famously, that it would pass "over my cold, dead political body." It was his adamancy that stiffened Republican spines, that kept the temporizers and defeatists from trying to split the difference. Gramm remarked that only two people in Washington had read the entire health-care bill, himself and Hillary Clinton: "She loved it, I hated it."
As a presidential candidate, Gramm seemed a good thing: a self-made man, an articulate one, certainly a driven one. He didn't go in for what was later called "compassionate conservatism," because conservatism just plain conservatism, freedom was compassionate, dammit, and why didn't more people understand that? And he was tired of being lectured to about poverty and hardship by people who had never known any.
Gramm, though, went nowhere. He raised a lot of money, but not a lot of supporters. What went wrong? "I was a poor candidate. I did a bad job. There's no one to blame but myself." What's more, "America was never going to elect me unless there was a crisis. And people didn't see a crisis in 1996. I was the wrong person at the wrong time. And there may never have been a right time for me."
Turning to the future, Gramm believes, among other things, that Social Security reform will eventually happen, because the Democrats can't demagogue it forever: "At some point, the lights go out. They run out of money," and that will be reform's hour. Gramm would like to see no income tax at all, favoring instead a consumption tax, "because the government doesn't have to know what your income is. It's a simpler system, and everybody pays." Even a flat tax won't "lead you home," because it would be strangled by exemptions. "If you get the tax away from income, you have a much better chance."
And then there's the miserable problem of race in America. Racial politics, says Gramm, is actually "dangerous" (a typically direct Gramm word). "Some people try to benefit by pitting people against one another based on race. Quotas and set-asides are dangerous. In America, we should judge people one at a time. When you start thinking of yourself as a group, that in itself is alien to America. Merit is the only fair way to do things. If we have a system based on merit and I don't get a promotion and someone else does, I can accept that. But if I believe the other person got it based on race, gender, or something else, it's harder to accept." The "incredible inequalities" we impose carry a steep price.
For all these years, Gramm has never quite been a Washington insider, though he's been an excellent player inside Washington. He never tried to be popular, and as a result he was intensely popular among those who understood and appreciated what he was doing. People like Clinton's Paul Begala used to knock him for being anti-government, and if he hated government so much, why did he spend so much time in government? Why didn't he get the hell out? Gramm is that rare, invaluable politician: a free-marketeer and anti-statist who's willing to work and succeed in politics in order to frustrate the centralizers. Someone has to. Not every Friedmanite can afford to shun government.
Can anyone replace him? Among the colleagues Gramm has been most impressed with is Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, "a great senator, who has principles and is willing to stand up for them, and to be unpopular." McConnell is, indeed, probably the most Gramm-like senator in Washington, apart from the original. Gramm also says that "if I could pick just one senator to be my own senator, it would be Don Nickles" of Oklahoma, because "he's got a good heart, and he's right on virtually everything." Finally, he suggests keeping an eye on two less familiar senators: Idaho's Mike Crapo and Alabama's Jeff Sessions.
If there's one thing Gramm is proud of, or wishes to emphasize, it's that "I've changed this town more than it has changed me. And I'm no less idealistic than I ever was." He says, "The one thing I've been committed to is freedom. Not just the freedom to say, 'I disagree with the government'" everyone loves the First Amendment. No, "economic freedoms, which are the most important ones," and also the ones most easily encroached on. "My whole career, no matter what I've done, has been about trying to promote freedom. That's all there is."
What's not to like about that?