Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Griffith Shoulda Gramm'ed It

Polls have closed on another primary day...and yup,we have a second defeated Member of the House and a second defeated party-switcher, with Parker Griffith getting clobbered in the GOP primary in AL-5.  

Anyway, in my post earlier today, I referred to some successful party-switchers, but one of them comes with a story that I should have told. Time to make up for that.

At this point, I'm not sure that everyone knows who Phil Gramm is. He was a Republican presidential candidate in 1996, and was thought to be a serious contender in a fairly wide-open field, although in the event he flopped miserably. He was a Republican Senator from Texas (1985-2002), and before that a Member of the House...but not always as a Republican. Nope. He was first elected as an old-fashioned Southern Democrat in 1978.

Despite caucusing with the Democrats, Gramm was a key supporter of Ronald Reagan's early, and successful, agenda -- in fact, the Reagan spending-slashing budget was the Gramm-Latta budget. Moreover, Majority Leader Jim Wright had supported a seat for Gramm on the Budget Committee, and believed that Gramm had broken his word about eventually supporting the committee's product -- and had gone beyond that by meeting secretly with Reagan OMB directer David Stockman to plot strategy, using the Democrats' plans against them. As a result, Gramm was kicked off the Budget Committee when the Democrats met after the 1982 elections.

Gramm's response was dramatic: he resigned from Congress, switched parties, and ran as a Republican in the special election caused by his resignation. And, unlike Arlen Specter and (apparently) Parker Griffith, he won, and he never lost an election in Texas.

I can't say I'm a big Phil Gramm fan...I always found his "juss' folks" manner annoying. But I have to say that if you're going to switch parties, he really did it the right way.

(I'm basically going on my memory for this, supplemented with wikipedia, but if I recall correctly my version of it derives mainly from this Ross Baker article).

Would Griffith have survived if he had resigned and forced a special election? I have no idea. Gramm's situation was obviously different...he had just been re-elected, he had a clear provocation for jumping (even if he had in turn provoked the Democrats), and he had been re-elected twice in his district already, while Griffith is still in his first term. And of course Gramm had actually don't more to endear himself to Republicans than just walking across the aisle. Still, I have to think that it would have been seen as courageous, and it would have been easier for Griffith to sell himself as someone putting principle over party and career, as opposed to someone putting self-preservation above all. Note that in general elections I'll always say that such things don't really matter much, but primaries are different...without the party label to differentiate candidates, all sorts of things can turn out to be important.  Also, I don't know what the rules are in Alabama; I don't know whether a special election would have been a single election for all comers, or if there would be a "normal" election with primaries and a general.  If the former, Republicans would have had a strong incentive to rally behind a single candidate (to avoid losing the seat altogether). 

It could be that Griffith was just a fluke winner, and was destined to lose no matter what he did.  I don't know...I think his best bet would have been to try to win re-election as a Dem, and his second-best option would have been the Gramm route, a resignation and a special election.  Granted, it's easy to say that now.  What I am sure about is that I'd like to see the next party-switcher give Gramm'ing it a try.  Although after the last few weeks, I suspect that party switchers are going to be a bit more scarce than they once were.

4 comments:

  1. At this point, I'm not sure that everyone knows who Phil Gramm is.

    You are correct in your intuition. Everyone doesn't know who Phil Gramm is.

    Me, I'm one of these stupid liberals who remembers him most vividly from Al Franken's hit job on him in Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot ("consider for a minute that Gramm wasn't referring to mere physical ugliness").

    In recent history, of course, most political nerds remember him as the guy who had to resign from McCain's campaign after referring to the U.S. as "a nation of whiners." (Well, it was straight talk, no?)

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  2. Griffith voted AGAINST the healthcare reform bill. And yet, he lost his primary election anyway. We were told that voting for healthcare reform would be poison to politicians. So far doesn't seem to be the case.

    Voters have short memories.

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  3. Gramm and Specter/Griffith may all be party-switchers, but they exemplify two very different models of political entrepreneurship. Gramm was a direct marketer, selling ideological coherence to an electorate that was beginning to segregate itself ideologically. In that respect, at least, he was a precursor of a Joe Sestak or a Rand Paul, not of the candidates they were running against.

    “Gramm’ing it” was out of the question for a Specter or a Griffith because ideological purity was never part of their political brand. They were trying to secure a political future for themselves by being backroom politicians, offering their votes on key issues to the other party’s leadership in exchange for a secure political perch. Their mistake was thinking that the leadership of their new party could find them one.

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  4. Arlington Big FishJune 5, 2010 at 12:44 PM

    Whenever someone mentions Phil Gramm, I always feel compelled to bring up the quote generally attributed to Kent Hance, who was a Democratic congressman from Texas during the Phil Gramm era. He supposedly said, "There are 2 things you need to keep in mind about Phil Gramm. First, he's mean as a snake. Second, he's smarter than you are."

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