Saturday, July 12, 2008

The McCain scrutiny X

For some time now, the operation of the John McCain campaign bus has been a startlingly democratic (with a small d) enterprise. Early in the year, the lobbyist-friends of the candidate had a hand (or seemed to) in charting the campaign trajectory, to the candidate’s disadvantage. Last month, McCain chief strategist Charlie Black took his turn behind the wheel of misfortune when he said another terrorist event the scale of 9/11 would play to McCain’s advantage.

Add to that list the name of Phil Gramm, the former Texas senator and economics professor, current vice chairman for the Swiss UBS Investment Bank, incidental architect of the housing crisis that plagues the United States, and McCain economic adviser and campaign co-chairman. With one interview, Gramm has taken the McCain campaign vehicle into provocative, even dangerous territory, and made plain the irony of McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, seemingly at the mercy of his lieutenants.

It seems that whoever’s driving the McCain campaign bus may, or may not, be the man with his name on it.

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Gramm, a supporter of tax cuts and supply-side economics, has long been a champion of a decrease in government regulation, something that the investment banking and mortgage industries have howled for in recent years —something that Gramm, as a UBS Business Group vice chairman, has been, uh, in a position to help out with on Capitol Hill.

Gramm, whom McCain has retained to offer much-needed advice on the national economy, sat down Wednesday for an interview with The Washington Times.

In an overview of modern America, the national economy and the rise of global competition, Gramm, a man with a Ph. D in economics, volunteered that the nation’s problems are more illusory than not.

“You've heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession,” Gramm told The Times. “We may have a recession; we haven't had one yet. We have sort of become a nation of whiners. You just hear this constant whining, complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline. We've never been more dominant. We've never had more natural advantages than we have today,”

“We have benefited greatly” from globalization in the last 30 years, Gramm said.

“Misery sells newspapers,” Gramm said. (For the growing number of newspaper editors who’ve been laid off this year, some who’ve seen their work actually outsourced to India, it must come as a relief to know that something sells newspapers these days.)

“Thank God the economy is not as bad as you read in the newspaper every day,” said Gramm, who’s being paid handsomely by UBS to lobby Congress to reverse state regulations meant to curb use of predatory lending practices that led to homeowners seduced by lenders and brokers into high-cost, high-interest mortgages they couldn’t afford.

It’s this glaring disconnect, this separation from the realities of millions of Americans, that McCain reinforces with a staff thick with lobbyists pursuing the same special interests McCain has condemned; with inconsistencies on a host of positions, from setting a withdrawal date from Iraq to his own willingness to vote for his party’s leader, President Bush.

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Gramm damage control kicked in almost immediately. “Phil Gramm’s comments are not representative of John McCain’s views,” a McCain official said. “John McCain travels the country every day talking to Americans who are hurting, feeling pain at the pump and worrying about how they’ll pay their mortgage. That’s why he has a realistic plan to deliver immediate relief at the gas pump, grow our economy and put Americans back to work.”

The presumed nominee put daylight between himself and Gramm with the obligatory town-hall dissent. “I strongly disagree” with Gramm's remarks, McCain told reporters and businesspeople at a stamped products plant in Belleville, Mich. “Phil Gramm does not speak for me. I speak for me,” McCain said, wresting the wheel of the vehicle from Dr. Gramm.

McCain said anyone who’d just lost a job "isn't suffering from a mental recession."

“America is in great difficulty. And we are experiencing enormous economic challenges as well as others,” he said.

And when he was asked by Time magazine whether Gramm might be the treasury secretary in a wildly hypothetical McCain administration, McCain tried to crack wise, responding with some of his characteristic humor.

“I think Senator Gramm would be in serious consideration … for ambassador to Belarus,” he said, “although I’m not sure the citizens of Minsk would welcome that.”

The sound of crickets on a summer’s day was deafening. Less obvious were the screams of the good doctor, clinging to the rear axle of the Straight Talk Express.

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Obama, as you might expect, parked it in deep right field. “A nation of whiners,” he said at a campaign stop in Fairfax, Va., warming to the issue like a standup comic about to deliver a guaranteed kill. “I want you all to know America already has one Dr. Phil. We don’t need another one when it comes to the economy.

“It’s not just a figment of your imagination. It’s not just all in your head.”

“What John McCain, George Bush, Phil Gramm just don't understand is that the American people aren't whining about the state of the economy; they are suffering under the weight of it — the weight of eight years of Bushenomics that John McCain and Phil Gramm have vowed to continue,” Karen Finney, Democratic National Committee communications director, told The Politico’s Mike Allen. 

McCain has made much of having some 300 economists who have signed on to his Jobs for America plan. Responding to an e-mail from The Huffington Post, seeking reaction to the McCain economic strategy, Michael Connolly, economics professor at the University of Miami (and one of the 300), grasped the connection between the national economy and McCain’s signature issue: the war in Iraq.

“Yes, I support the Jobs for America policy proposal, especially a simplified tax code, lower restrictions on trade, and energy development," Connolly said. "[But] I am worried that continuing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will tear apart our social fabric and defeat any economic proposal to reduce the deficit and stimulate growth. Guns are crowding out butter.”

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“I'm going to be honest,” McCain told The Wall Street Journal in 2005. “I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated.”

The education of John McCain continues. Since Phil Gramm doesn’t speak for John McCain but John McCain does, we’ll see how well Phil Gramm instructs John McCain on economic matters from the bottom of the back of the campaign bus.
Image credits: Gramm: Public domain. McCain: T Toes, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license 2.0.

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