I prefer, as a columnist, to take my heroes neat. They should be perfect--people I admire for everything they do, not just for one thing. It is, therefore, somewhat of a chore to have to say something nice about former Rep. Phil Gramm, the erstwhile Texas Democrat who was punished for, among other things, voting his own way: He is right on the principles because he was wrong on the issues.
Gramm has resigned and switched parties. He did so after House Democrats deprived him of the seat he cherished on the influential Budget Committee, finding him more of a Reaganite than the president himself. It was the position of the Democratic leadership that Gramm was more than just a simple nonconformist when it came to party doctrine, but duplicitous to boot. After swearing fealty to the leadership, he brazenly sold it out. For this he was booted.
The sticky matter of personal ethics aside, the trouble with Gramm is that he was heroic in the wrong cause. He sided always with the president, doing so, though, out of personal and intellectual conviction. As a result, he helped fashion an economic and tax program that has either triggered or exacerbated the worst and most sustained recession since the Great Depression.
Gramm was punished, though, not because he was mistaken, but because he was mistaken in the wrong party--the Democratic one. If he were a Republican, which he now is, he would have suddenly been right--right and wrong in Washington being simply a partisan matter. Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) is generally considered the best majority leader to come down the pike since Lyndon Johnson, yet he helped engineer and enact tax and economic programs that were as devoid of intellectual sense as any Washington has ever seen.
In effect, Baker and his Republican colleagues in the House and the Senate, locked step and pushed through an economic program that called for a reduction in taxes and an increase in the defense budget--and that was still somehow going to reduce the deficit. Instead, it has pushed the deficit to a projected $200 billion, produced an unemployment rate approaching 11 percent and given the Pentagon more money than it needs--and even more than it can spend. That is not a bad piece of work.
In a previous incarnation as a presidential candidate, Vice President George Bush called this "voodoo economics," independent candidate John Anderson said it could be done only "with mirrors" and Baker himself had some doubts. Nevertheless, Republican moderates (and some Democrats) suspended their critical faculties and voted for the president's program anyway. They said they had faith--a "riverboat gamble," Baker called it. The country crapped out.
It was, you see, the president's program. It was therefore the party's program. No matter that it made no sense. No matter that the numbers did not add up. No matter that the longer you looked at it the sillier it got and no matter, either, that the longer it continued the worse things became.
Now, Republican congressmen are trudging up to the White House telling the president out loud what they were merely whispering all along: the Pentagon budget has to be reduced. The budget cannot be balanced on the backs of social programs. The tax cuts were probably a bad idea.
Gramm, of course, was one of those who believed in the Reagan program and so he is excused on the grounds of sincerity. But such was not the case with others--particularly some members of the Republican leadership. Instead, in true Washington fashion, they did what they were told by the White House. In the next campaign, these Republicans can say they were only following orders.
Gramm at least was following something else--his principles which were the same as his constituency's. He stood up to his party while others refused to stand up to theirs. He was wrong on the issues, right on his principles--but better for the country then those who voted like him because of either party loyalty or political survival. As such, Gramm is that most awkward of all heroes--half problem, half solution. These days, though, half a hero is better than none.