It’s always awkward when presidents and candidates are embarrassed by the words and behavior of their own friends.
And such was the case when McCain supporter and surrogate speaker Phil Gramm stated earlier this week that America has become a nation of “whiners.”
Speaking with a small group of media professionals, the former U.S. Senator (and former Presidential Candidate) from Texas spoke about current economic conditions, saying "you've heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession."
He went on to note that, despite all the rhetoric about hard times in America, our economy still produced a growth rate of approximately 1 percent last quarter. In the face of all the gloom about losing jobs to India and China, illegal immigrants taking jobs away from U.S. citizens, housing and credit problems, and record oil prices, Gramm pointed out that America is still enjoying a major boom in export business. "We have sort of become a nation of whiners," he said. "You just hear this constant whining, complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline…"
Now arguably, one could say that Gramm’s comments point towards the profound reality of the psychological underpinning to people’s economic behavior. If people “think” and “feel” as though times are bad, then they’ll behave, economically and otherwise, as though times are bad.
But that’s not how Gramm’s comments were received. More accurately, he was perceived as being insensitive and “out of touch” about the real hardship and pain that many Americans are facing, and was believed to have been speaking pejoratively about the American people.
McCain himself quickly rebuked Gramm, his longtime friend and the man that he supported for the presidency back in 1996. “Phil Gramm doesn’t speak for me, I speak for me” McCain said sternly. He went on to explain that a laid-off worker or a mother struggling to pay for a child's education "isn't suffering from a mental recession" - - in other words, the suffering is real, and so are our nation’s economic woes.
But lost in the midst of this little fiasco was a question that begs an answer: is Phil Gramm right? Has the United States of America, on some level, become a nation of whiners?
An examination of the rhetoric from this entire presidential campaign cycle would suggest that, to some degree, America is, in some collective sense, inclined toward whining right now. The candidates aren’t whining themselves, so much, but their ideas and proposals suggest that they are playing to an audience of whiners. And that’s not good for anybody - - not the whiners, nor for the rest of us.
Consider the Democratic Primary races. Clinton and Obama both took the “hatred of successful people” sensibilities to new high’s (or new “lows,” depending on how you view it). This was especially odd for Hillary Clinton, who, along with her husband, spent the entire previous decade positioning herself as a “New Democrat” and “Centrist,” and the kind of Democrat who can embrace free trade, upwardly mobile voters, and so forth.
But you would have never known that listening to Hillary and Obama earlier this year. When campaigning in the rust belt states where factory jobs have declined, Obama and Clinton blamed free trade for people’s pain, and vowed to “review” - - that is, deconstruct - - N.A.F.T.A. - - as though eliminating free trade would be the one thing needed to pacify people’s whining.
Obama and Clinton have also both spent a good bit of this year lashing out at “corporate America,” and “fat cat executives” - - another sure indication of whining in America. Why would anybody who wasn’t a whiner be obsessed with the salary of a CEO? And why would anyone at all be offended that a corporation earned a profit?
Corporate profits keep millions of Americans employed and line the retirement portfolios of millions of investors, and executives who manage such corporations deserve the compensation that the corporations’ board of directors have determined as “fair.” But don’t try to tell that to the presidential candidates. There’s to much political gain to be enjoyed by promising to “reign-in executive pay,” and to “tax corporations” even further.
So what if a presidential candidate shot back at this nonsense with some seriously insensitive but painfully truthful “straight talk?” To his credit, McCain has done this to some degree. Even while rebuking Gramm in the economically challenged state of Michigan last week, McCain still had the courage that he believes in the benefits of free trade, despite how unpopular that position might be.
That’s a good start. Now let’s imagine McCain rebuking Obama more succinctly. When Obama laments “rich greedy corporations” (oil corporations or any other), how about challenging Obama on the relative merits of a corporation that continually loses money (can someone say “General Motors?”)? And when Obama vows to get tough on “greedy” and “unscrupulous” mortgage lenders, and to “protect homeowners,” what if somebody - - McCain or someone else - - stood up and sated the obvious: Americans need to be better stewards of their own money! Americans who borrowed more than they should have, should not now look to the government to “fix their problem.” Oh, and by the way, 95% of us homeowners are paying our bills on time, so let’s not limit the scope of opportunity for 95% of us, just so we can coddle the other 5%.
I’d love to hear some of these ideas from Mr. McCain. But they would likely beget more whining.
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