Political Intelligence

Wham, Bam, Thank You, Gramm


In our May 30 issue, Patricia Kilday Hart reported on Phil Gramm’s influence on John McCain’s presidential candidacy. The curmudgeonly former Texas senator and devout free-market ideologue was, until recently, national co-chair of McCain’s campaign and a principal economic adviser. Given that Gramm sponsored legislation that helped create today’s mortgage crisis and other economic problems, we headlined our piece “McCain’s Gramm Gamble.

So that bet didn’t pay off.

On July 18, Gramm resigned from the McCain campaign. While we would love to claim that our story-which spearheaded a number of critical media reports on Gramm-started the controversy that led to his departure, the former senator actually stirred up the scandal all by himself.

In an interview with The Washington Times, published July 10, Gramm was asked about the country’s numerous economic woes: the stock market tumbling, housing prices falling, wages stagnating, and prices rising. Gramm’s empathy was on display. “We have sort of become a nation of whiners,” he told the Times. “You just hear this constant whining, complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline. … You’ve heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession.”

Those sentiments didn’t go over well with the public or with McCain’s political team. The campaign immediately reduced Gramm’s profile, announcing he would no longer conduct public appearances on McCain’s behalf. The candidate himself had to assert on the campaign trail that, um, no, he doesn’t think Americans are a bunch of whiners. He said Gramm would have little role in his administration, telling reporters, “I think that Sen. Gramm would be in serious consideration for ambassador to Belarus, although I’m not sure the citizens of Minsk would welcome that.”

Gramm tried to clarify his remarks, claiming he had described America’s leaders as “whiners,” not the public. He stood by the “mental recession” comment. The controversy lingered-prodded along gleefully by Democrats-and Gramm had to step down, telling CNN he would “join the growing number of rank-and-file McCain supporters.” Well, that and return to his work as an executive and lobbyist for UBS, the Swiss banking giant.

We likely haven’t heard the last of Phil Gramm. He and McCain are good friends. Should the Arizona senator win the White House, Gramm could still be a front-runner for a key economic position, and it wouldn’t be in Minsk.

-Dave Mann

Universal Debate


Democrats again are talking seriously about enacting universal health care. With majorities in Congress and perhaps soon a Democratic White House, the moment for reform seems near. But wouldn’t you know it, Democrats are bitterly divided over what kind of reform would be best and how to sell it.

Those divisions were abundantly clear when liberal bloggers stampeded into Austin recently for the 2008 Netroots Nation conference (the gathering formerly known as YearlyKos). They gathered in the state with the highest percentage of uninsured residents in the country. Twenty percent of Texans lack health insurance.

At a panel on health care reform, bloggers and medical professionals tussled over which plan was better: single-payer, government-run health insurance for all, or a hybrid that mixes government plans with remnants of the private system.

One major flashpoint was the recently launched Health Care for America Now campaign, a $40 million effort started by prominent progressives-Elizabeth Edwards is the spokesperson-to advocate universal health care.

Not everyone is jumping on board the group’s campaign. Some panelists said the initiative would allow insurance companies to remain an integral part of the system. “The insurance industry has no role in being a part of health care reform in this country,” said Geri Jenkins, president of the California Nurses Association. “Their primary goal is to make a profit … by restricting access and denying care.”

The problem with a public-private hybrid system, said Ana Malinow, associate professor of pediatrics at Baylor University and a pediatrician at Ben Taub General Hospital in Houston, is that the public program will end up providing care for the sick and elderly, while private insurers profit off the healthy.

Ezra Klein, associate editor of The American Prospect and the only America Now supporter on the panel, asked attendees, “Why, given the political realities of the country we live in, are you willing to sacrifice the better for the perfect?” Klein said panelists are looking at the issue from the wrong perspective. The history of health care reform failure, from Truman to Clinton, indicates it is a political, not a policy, issue, he said.

“We got plans, guys, but this is a problem of politics,” Klein said. “The enemy is not the insurance companies, but the U.S. Senate.” He said that reformers must generate enough public support to make senators fear losing votes more than losing insurance industry campaign money.

“We absolutely need a united front,” Malinow said before injecting a bit more disunity. “But we won’t unite behind more phony, misguided reform.”

-Elisabeth Kristof

The Right Huffs


While thousands of progressive bloggers met in downtown Austin for Netroots Nation in mid-July, 500 or so right-wing Internet warriors billeted uptown at the Renaissance Austin Hotel for a conservative counter-conference. They called it the Texas Defending the American Dream Summit. Attendees feasted on panels such as “New Media & the Conservative Movement” and “Global Warming: The Cost of Climate Change Hysteria,” and feted luminaries, including Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader, libertarian Bob Barr (who also made an appearance at Netroots Nation), several members of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and the irrepressible TV commentator and blogger Michelle Malkin.

Like their lefty counterparts across town, the bloggers and activists of the right showed no love for the mainstream media. “We don’t need the liberal media like we used to,” said Daniel Glover, a conservative journalist. “We can actually be the media.”

Much of the conference was consumed with how to catch up to liberals online. When it comes to the Web, it turns out that right-wingers have quite the inferiority complex. At a training session on new media (online videos, podcasts, Facebook), participants worried that the conservative movement was missing a chance to reach young people on the Internet. One young woman ridiculed John McCain’s Web site for its relentless focus on messaging to the exclusion of everything else. “Barack Obama’s Web site is, ‘What’s your message and let me tell you how it fits in with mine,'” she said. “They’re connecting people on a level that’s not even political, it’s social.”

Headliner Malkin, who blogs at HotAir.com, later attempted to repel the negative thinking. “I’m here to pump you up,” she announced to the cheering crowd. She told the audience that most conservative bloggers aren’t fretting about progressives’ online advantage. “We’re too busy doing our thing,” she said. Malkin bragged on the right wing’s Internet successes: toppling Dan Rather, killing the “shamnesty” legislation that would have created a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and providing daily correctives to “biased” war coverage. Because of the Internet, she said, activists are “no longer beholden to elite, snob Beltway gatekeepers.”

Back in the blogosphere, not every conference attendee was buying Malkin’s message. At NextRight.com, blogger Aaron Marks lamented conservatives’ sluggish attempts to capitalize on Web 2.0 tools. “So Michelle, yes, we are different. And because of this we are also behind.”

-Forrest Wilder

T. Boone Pickens

Big Green Men


Former VP Al Gore and oil billionaire-Swift Boat Veterans for Truth bankroller T. Boone Pickens have little in common, but the two largely agree on the nation’s energy policy: They think it’s broken. In mid-July, each announced an ambitious plan to wean America from oil.

Pickens is calling for a $1.2 trillion investment in wind power over the next decade to increase wind’s contribution to the nation’s electricity portfolio to 20 percent from 1 percent now. Turbines, according to the Pickens plan, will free up natural gas currently burned in power plants for use in automobiles. The projected result: a 38-percent reduction in imported oil, cleaner air, and thousands of new green-collar jobs.

Of course, Pickens is looking to cash in along the way. He’s sinking $10 billion into the world’s largest wind farm in the Texas Panhandle, and he’s neck-deep in natural gas investments.

Still, Texas environmentalists and renewable energy advocates seem tickled that Pickens is speaking up. “It’s incredibly helpful to have someone of Pickens’ stature in the oil and gas industry basically saying we’ve got to change things, and putting his money where his mouth is,” says Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen’s Texas branch.

The green community is more conflicted about the notion of powering automobiles with natural gas, which, while cleaner than oil, is still a finite fossil fuel that emits greenhouse gases and other pollutants when burned. And the infrastructure upgrades necessary for wider application are extensive, argues Ken Kramer, director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter. Service stations, for example, would have to be retrofitted. Advocates like Smith and Kramer would rather see a leap to hybrid electric vehicles.

Gore’s plan-more a call to action, actually-is to achieve a 100-percent carbon-free, renewable-powered electricity system in the U.S. within 10 years. “The easiest and cheapest and quickest way to shift over to renewable energy is with the generation of electricity,” he told a cheering audience at July’s Netroots Nation convention in Austin. (Netroots is a national organization of progressive bloggers and activists.) The Sierra Club’s Kramer says Gore’s goal is “theoretically possible,” but would require tremendous effort and would involve not just wind but solar and biomass power, aggressive energy efficiency and conservation programs, and an expensive overhaul of the grid.

Gore’s plan is “largely feel-good nonsense,” says Robert Bryce, a frequent Observer contributor and author of Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence.” “His speech didn’t include a single cost estimate-a fact that I think disqualifies it from any type of serious consideration.”

Pickens is more charitable. If Barack Obama is elected president, he told National Journal, Gore ought to be his energy czar.

-Forrest Wilder

Senator Stevens

The Money Game


The economy might suck, but that hasn’t kept candidates for the Texas House from vacuuming up beaucoup campaign dollars. In May the Observer profiled 15 races (plus six honorable mentions) whose outcomes will likely determine control of the Texas House. In the first half of 2008, those 42 candidates-Democrat and Republican, hailing from El Paso to Vidor, Dallas to Corpus Christi-collectively raised a staggering $5,145,603.

Overall, Republicans have a small edge. They pulled in about $2.9 million to the Democrats’ $2.2 million. At the end of June, the Republican candidates had slightly more cash in the bank-$2.4 million to the Dems’ $2.2 million.

On closer inspection, the fundraising figures held some surprises-and good news for Democrats. In House District 96, a plum pickup for the Democrats if they can manage it, Arlington Democrat Chris Turner out-raised his incumbent op
onent Republican $240,000 to $207,000, despite Zedler’s pulling down big bucks from GOP moneybags Louis Beecherl ($5,000), James Leininger ($10,000), and Gov. Rick Perry ($10,000).

Baptist preacher and relatively unknown Democratic candidate Joel Redmond must have been busy passing the collection plate in Pasadena. Redmond blindsided opponent Ken Legler, ending June with $87,000 on hand to Legler’s zero, zilch, nada in the campaign coffers. In Corpus Christi, Democratic golden boy Juan Garcia and politician-turned-lobbyist-turned-politician Todd Hunter are both stacking the Benjamins. Garcia added $402,000 to his already-fat war chest between January and July. He has $522,000 on-hand. Hunter, who has the backing of Gov. Perry and other heavyweights, pulled in $301,000, with $165,000 still in the bank.

Sitting pretty on the GOP side is Dee Margo, a candidate for a Republican-leaning district in El Paso. Margo called down almost $522,000 from corporate PACs, executives, and Republican stalwarts, including homebuilder Bob Perry, in the first half of 2008. Margo’s young Democratic opponent Joe Moody managed just $87,000.

With only three months left before the election, long-shot candidates who failed to raise much money are looking increasingly weak. These include Democrat Emil Reichstadt, an attorney from Highland Park angling to unseat rising star Republican Rep. Dan Branch. Branch out-raised Reichstadt 9-1. Also looking anemic is former Irving City Councilman Bob Romano, who managed only $8,200 to Republican incumbent Linda Harper-Brown’s $111,000.

-Forrest Wilder