Fineman on Gramm's 'Whiners' Gaffe

This was supposed to be John McCain's week to re-re-launch his campaign, this time with a tightly focused message about the economy and how he plans to fix it. He had a nicely staged debut in Denver, even if the experts quickly demanded to know how he could preserve George Bush's tax cuts, stay in Iraq and yet balance the federal budget by 2013. Details, details! Still, McCain was back in the game.

Then a one-man thundercloud named Phil Gramm rained on McCain's Main Street parade.

In one of the more boneheaded remarks in recent presidential politics (and Gramm has uttered others) the former Texas senator declared that we are in the midst of a "mental recession" and that we have "sort of become a nation of whiners."

This was so asinine as to make Jesse Jackson Sr. (and his live-microphone gaffe about cutting off Barack Obama's ... accessories) sound like Plato.

McCain, polls show, is struggling to persuade voters—even in his own party—that Republicans deserve to retain stewardship of the economy. Obama and the Democrats are way ahead in polls on questions related to jobs, health care, gas prices, business regulation, the mortgage mess—you name it.

At a time of $4-a-gallon gasoline (or more), of falling home prices in most American cities, of skyrocketing food costs and steadily rising unemployment rates, dismissing worried American voters as whining, depressed basket cases is, well, insane.

Gramm is an economist—at least he has a Ph.D. in the field—but nothing proves the stupidity of the "dismal science" more than his comments in an interview with The Washington Times. Technically, a "recession" is two straight quarters of negative growth; so technically, we may in fact not be in a recession. Or we might, but don't yet know it.

Either way, Gramm missed the point.

The other lesson he missed is the one that tells rich Republicans who represent banks that they should keep their mouths shut. Evidently, Gramm long since lost whatever political fingertips he used to have when he was a conservative GOP senator from Texas.

Ironically, Gramm initially sold himself as an aw-shucks regular guy. He was always talking about his friend "Dickie Flatt," a small-town small businessman Gramm claimed to be representing—literally and metaphorically—in Washington.

But Gramm, long since out of government, has turned his expertise over to the banks and banking industry he works for. He was a proponent of the kind of anti-regulation philosophy that many observers think contributed to the current mortgage crisis.

Senator McCain, cringing, immediately distanced himself from Gramm and his comments. The two men have been friends and allies for more than a quarter century. In 1988, when Gramm ran an abortive campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, McCain was at his side.

To prove his regular-guy street cred, Gramm used to brag about how he had flunked grades in elementary school. McCain must've been remembering that bit of braggadocio today, as he went to great lengths to reassure voters that he knew their pain was real, whatever Gramm had said. But the damage was done.

When McCain was in the Navy in Vietnam, he knew who the enemy was. These days he's got to watch the incoming from his friends.