07/28/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

McCain Owes Us More Than Gramm's Resignation

Phil Gramm's resignation from the McCain campaign doesn't do much for me. I'm reminded of the saying Texas football fans had about the Oklahoma Sooners during the Barry Switzer era: It's tough to drown a snake.

The ironic and frustrating thing about Gramm, whose lobbying activities have now been linked to the sub-prime mortgage crisis, is we actually may be safer when he has some sort of quasi-public job. At least that way national reporters and congressional ethics committees can keep an eye on him.

I covered Gramm's 1984 and 1990 campaigns, and he represented me and about 20 million other Texans in the U.S. Senate for 18 years, so I wasn't surprised - disgusted, but not surprised - to hear him refer to Americans who are scared and hurting in this economy as mentally confused "whiners."

The annoying thing about this story is the predictable headline "McCain Distances Himself From Gramm" in the (New York) Daily News, Houston Chronicle, Washington Times, on, and pretty much every other news source that carried the story. (I Googled the phrase inside quotations and got 2,810 hits.)

So what? Who wouldn't "distance himself" from that statement or anyone cruel enough to make it?

That story, served with Gramm's resignation as a two-day news package about a gaffe and its aftermath, is precisely the Insider Baseball Joan Didion skewered in her seminal essay on campaign reporting 25 years ago.

McCain didn't announce he was distancing himself from an economic program designed by a man who devoted his entire career to: cutting corporate taxes, reducing the social safety net and deregulating financial markets. The only thing different is that someone else will have the silly title "national co-chairman."

Doesn't anyone in the gaggle assigned to the McCain campaign see this as a prime time to put McCain on the record discussing: 1.) Why he chose Gramm, who Fortune magazine touted as "McCain's Econ Brain," to craft his economic agenda? And 2.) How the conservative economic philosophy they share would play out in his administration?

If McCain sees Monetarism (Quantity Theory) as the key to determining inflation, he should be able to tell us how that works. If he buys Rational Expectations Theory as contemporary reason for a return to a pre-Keynesian model, he needs to say so. And if he is a true Supply-Sider, let's hear how he'll promote private savings and investment and in whose hands that capital will be stored.

Of course, I'm exaggerating for effect, but here's the point: McCain wants us to put him in charge of the world's leading economy, but he is outsourcing his intellectual and philosophical responsibilities in that area. It seems to be part of who he is, just like George W. Bush.

McCain regularly jokes that he doesn't know as much about the economy as he should, and he admitted at one Republican debate that he doesn't even know how to use the Internet.

That isn't charming or funny. It's frightening.

This is 2008. Nothing except energy policy has more potential impact on the future of our economy and our nation's place in the world than the policies we adopt in the coming decade for telecommunications and Internet commerce. Thank God Cindy is teaching him about e-mail.

Bush's disastrous presidency shows what happens when a candidate and his handlers hoodwink national reporters with a charm offensive, hoping that they will give the candidate a pass on basic cultural and intellectual curiosity because the answers to those questions could be embarrassing.

Remember the stories about Bush -- a scion of privilege whose father was ambassador to China -- having so little interest in the world that he never traveled abroad until he decided to run for president?

Bush outsourced foreign policy to Cheney and Rumsfeld, and we all know what a bum decision that turned out to be. Is the national press going to allow McCain to do the same with Gramm and our economy?

Patti Kilday Hart, one of the most respected journalists in Texas for a quarter century, hinted in her recent story "John McCain's Gramm Gamble" that Gramm's role as a national co-chairman for the McCain campaign may have been part of a larger, informal audition for Treasury secretary.

She reminds us of Gramm's toady relationship with Ken Lay, the black-hearted varmint who was Gramm's largest corporate contributor, whose company benefited from the deregulation Gramm slipped through Congress without a hearing, and then who, as the company was imploding, convinced thousands of employees to invest their future retirement in its stock while he dumped his own shares to salvage his personal fortune.

Molly Ivins, my former colleague at the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, once dubbed Gramm "the Meanest Man in the United States" for single-handedly blocking legislation that would restore food stamps eliminated in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act to elderly legal immigrants.

It was 1998, and Gramm had the gall to issue a press release arguing that cutting that aid was a "critically important step" toward getting families "out of the welfare trap," and that reinstating that aid would constitute "a new personal tragedy" for them.

Jesus Christ.

There were 121,000 elderly people, legal immigrants and Texas residents, relying on that help to buy food when it was eliminated. They weren't faceless demand units in some textbook on economic thyeory. Like the Enron employees, they were Gramm's constituents -- people he was elected to help!

I'm not one to blindly indict all conservative thinking, and my academic research isn't in the field of economics. But I reported on and was represented by Gramm long enough to know this is the consistent result of his brand of conservatism and the economic policies he zealously represents.

Elderly legal immigrants; blue-collar workers, who saved their whole lives so they could retire with dignity and who trusted their employer to their own financial destruction; and most recently, hundreds of thousands of Americans caught in the nightmare of the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

These are the people Gramm insulted as "whiners."

Reporters covering McCain owe it to the rest of us to get past whether McCain "distanced himself" from Gramm's callous remark. The real question for the Straight Talk Express is: "Does McCain really understand -- or does he care enough about America's future to try and understand -- the fine print on the economic contract Gramm would have him sign wtih America?"

And if so, is he willing to distance himself from the message, not just the messenger?

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