Page 1


AFTERWORD Carriage Trade BY CHAR MILLER RNEALLY, IT COULDN’T have happened to a nicer guy: Phil Gramm’s ovember loss to Bob Dole in a non-binding straw poll of Florida Republicans, when linked to an earlier, and even more shocking tie with Dole in a poll of voters in the Lone Star state, is clear evidence that his campaign is collapsing. As goes Texas, so goes Floridaand, surely, California. Without these rich Republican redoubts, Gramm doesn’t have a prayer of tion. How appropriate then that Iowa, whose straw poll Gramm snagged after spending considerably more than a thousand dollars per voter, was his first \(and Part of his decline can be attributed to the fact that Gramm, much ballyhooed for his ability to shake the money tree, has proved to be a flop on the national campaign circuitthis candidate with a massive bankroll has been reduced to begging Republicans in New Hampshire and elsewhere to give him another look; after all, he laughs, it took three proposals before his wife finally agreed to be his bride. But the Grand Old Party, hungry to dislodge Bill Clinton from the White House, appears in no mood to wait; apparently it wants to tie the knot with the cranky Mr. Dole. Only he doesn’t seem quite as cranky with Gramm in the race; the mere presence of the acerbic Texan makes for a kinder and gentler Dole. He even manages to make Dole seem younger, more modern, too, a political facelift that would have seemed impossible but which Gramm has facilitated by his reliance upon political rhetoric charged with a nineteenth-century animus. Gramm thinks old. That was signaled from the moment and by the manner of his formal declaration of his candidacy at Texas A&M University in College Station in late February. Before a background of snapping Stars and Stripes, and surrounded by clean-cut, khaki-clad members of the Aggie Corps, the former economics professor reminded his audience that he had repeatedly used the campus as a backdrop to his formal announce Char Miller teaches American history at Trinity University in San Antonio. ments for each new level of public office. “It was here that I came and asked you to send me to Congress. It was here that I came back and asked you to let me trade that little shovel…for a bigger shovel in the United States Senate.” Now, having finished digging in the trenches of the nation’s capitol, he had come back once more “to ask you for that final promotion” to the White House. “We’re one victory shy of changing the course of American history,” he concluded. “We’re one victory away from getting our money back and our freedom back and our country back….” Back from whom? Gramm didn’t keep his fresh-faced audience in suspense for long: He vowed to reclaim this land from the teenage mothers of “our big cities,” to free it from the stranglehold of the “blamesociety-first” Democrats, and to liberate those hardworking citizens whom liberals have held back through a pernicious system of “quotas, preferences and set asides.” He also gigged welfare recipients: “We’ve got to stop giving people more and more money to have more and more children,” and then, in a line that drew loud applause, and which he has repeated ever since, demanded that the “able-bodied men and women riding in the wagon on welfare get out of the wagon and help the rest of us pull.” In post-industrial America, the impoverished hold the whip hand. THAT’S PRECISELY WHAT had galled William Graham Sumner at the dawn of the industrial state. To read the Yale professor’s What Social Classes Owe to Each Other cate a source, conscious or not, of Gramm’s late-twentieth-century politics of resentment. In it, Sumner cast a withering look at the paternal state, a model of government that misguided “friends of humanity” had imported from Germany, the central thrust of which was to sustain those who could not sustain themselves. It did this through a direct coercion of a sober, hardworking and thrifty citizenry, taxing their income so as to redistribute it to the poor and weak. “The man who has done nothing to raise himself above poverty finds that the social doctors flock about him, bringing the capital which they have collected from the other class, and promis ing him the aid of the State to give him what the other had to work for.” These faux philanthropists had thereby invented a “new maxim of judicious living,” he sneered. If “you get wealth, you will have to support other people; if you do not get wealth, it will be the duty of other people to support you.” In the Gilded Age, a time in which the Robber Barons epitomized the vast concentrations of wealth then possible, Sumner could conclude without a trace of irony that “poverty is the best policy.” His critics, like Gramm’s today, knew better; they knew that a society’s least powerful did not sit in the driver’s seata point that Edward Bellamy made explicit in his utopian novel, Looking Backward reader some general impression…of the relations of the rich and the poor to one another,” Bellamy’s protagonist mused, one could not “do better than to compare society…to a prodigious coach.” To it were harnessed “the masses of humanity” who pulled it “along a very hilly and sandy road,” while atop the coach lounged society’s elite; they never left their seats “even at the steepest ascents,” preferring to remain “out of the dust,” a lofty vantage point from which they could “enjoy the scenery at their leisure or critically discuss the merits of the straining team.” Contact between these two stations in life were limited: those riding high might “call down encouragingly to the toilers of the rope, exhorting them to patience, and holding out hopes for possible compensation in another world,” or some might “buy salves and liniments for the crippled or injured.” But none doubted the order of things, all believed that “there was no other way for Society to get along.” The many must pull for the few. That image remains a haunting representation of American political life, and it may well withstand Gramm’s attempt to subvert its meaning so as to mask and maintain his place among the powerful. His artful pose as a Lexus Populist, however, has begun to wear thin, if one can judge by his continuing decline in the polls, a fall that suggests there may be limits to the social antipathy that even Republicans are willing to embrace in their relentless drive to power. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23