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"What could he have meant by that?"

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted July 14, 2008

Phil Gramm and John McCainLast week, Senator and McCain economic advisor Phil Gramm got himself into some hot water by suggesting that the current slowdown has a hypochondriacal element to it. More than a few Democrats quickly inferred that Senator Graham was fulfilling the old stereotype of the callous Republican blame-the-poor stoneheart, so naturally they called much attention to his remarks. It is election season, after all.

The trouble with the facile pegging of Sen. Gramm as "callous," though, is that it ignores some obvious facts about Senator Gramm himself. He's a political figure; he still is. A look at his résumé shows that he's had quite an impressive career as an elected politician.

Politics is too competitive for "callous" people to gain and keep elected office, especially in the face of a media that's not very inclined to walk in a conservative Republican's shoes. (Empathy is finite, after all; no wonder it's economized.) He would not have had much of a career at all had he recurrently acted out in a manner more befitting a college student with his/her head full of Ayn Rand than a professional politician would have. Simple self-interest within the Republican Party would have shot him down in the primary, for the party's own good, had he been that way. The man can't really be described as senile, so there has to be something more to this item than the reporting of it indicates.

One of the basic skills of demotic politicians is the appeal to the center. Some do so explicitly through amalgamating blandness, syntactic incompleteness and salable wish lists. Others prefer a principled approach which, although ostensibly to the right or left, contains embedded complaints that resonate with and mobilize the center. The latter strategy is one that's more identified with the Republican Party nowadays: Ronald Reagan was a master at it, as was Franklin D. Roosevelt a very long time ago.

There are two tricks to doing so, though. The first is to moderate one's behavior when in or near office, so as to convince voters in the center that you do in fact identify with them. This reassurance-through-moderation approach is, basically, what derailed the Reagan Revolution in its early days. Old Ronnie was canny enough to know which part of the bread was thickly buttered and which part wasn't. This trick, Senator Gramm apparently flubbed: he got himself a thinly-disguised public rebuke from Senator McCain the same day. A public apology from Gramm would meet this requirement; there's already speculation that he will.

On the other hand, there's a second trick which every successful politician (and more than a few non-politicians) know intuitively: if you're going to make a stand, you must clearly imply that it's a "moderate" one by landing on two different "extremes" in it. This part, Sen. Gramm has fulfilled, although he may have done so too elegantly for his own good.

You can see it by taking a close look at his statement, quoted in full just below from this source:

The Times quoted him as saying: "You've heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession. ... 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."

There are two extremes that Gramm's statement takes to task. One is easy to identify: it's left-liberalism, which puts the ban on any hint of criticizing the self-proclaimedly needy. Specifically, Gramm aimed at the anti-globalist trade-restrictionist wing of the Left. There is, though, another extreme criticized therein that's less known.

It's actually the libertarian-oriented right wing. According to this political subculture, America has a lot to worry about. Debt levels, both public and private, are out of control. The banking system is nearing a raging credit-imploding river which can only be forded through ramping up the rate of money growth. Even the worrisome published debt levels are the tip of an unfunded-liability logjam, which will bring further trouble to the U.S. economy. Americans have become too used to relying upon the printing press for funds to import goods, particularly Chinese goods, as evinced by the large and seemingly permanent U.S. trade deficit. The Chinese work hard and save; Americans don't. (To be more accurate, high saving rates and near-workaholicism are normalized in the industrialized part of China while in America they no longer are.) All of these points, according to this kind of libertarian conservative, spell impending doom for the U.S. economy – and are primarily caused by wastrel government.

It's the presence of the latter set of alarums that make Sen. Gramm's recent statement more than liberal-bashing. He's trying to shame the more conservative (or saturnine) part of the Ron Paul circuit back into the mainstream Republican fold.

Landing on both extremes is one of the standard tricks in any politicians' arsenal, whether done elegantly in a single blow or explicitly through a two-step enumeration. This technique works because most votes are congregated near the centre; if done especially skillfully, then it gets the extremes fighting each other (rather than meeting to compare notes with each other.) Whether Sen. Gramm showed maladroitness in its use, whether his statement was misunderstood, or whether his words were misunderstood in the mainstream media circuit but well understood elsewhere, remains to be seen. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is a regular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.


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