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GRAMM STANDING

Driven by ambition and ideology, an awkward A&M economics teacher became one of the most formidable powers in Congress. Now Phil Gramm is setting his sights on the White House.
By Allan Freedman |

IT IS EARLY OCTOBER IN WASHINGTON, A BRIGHT, warm autumn day, and Phil Gramm is standing in a dimly lit corridor just off the floor of the U.S. Senate. Nearly everyone in the nation’s capital- from sleepy-eyed commuters to government workers to U.S. senators-is obsessed with the ongoing federal budget negotiations. Residents, crammed into buses and subways, study The Washington Post for the latest progress report. Hundreds of chanting government workers, waving placards like “Read my lips: I’m broke” and blowing whistles to show disgust for government leaders, stomp the pavement outside the Capitol. Cloistered inside, a dozen or so reporters, notebooks in hand, are listening to Gramm trying to sell a $500 billion deficit-reduction plan. Clutching a printout of arcane budget-related data, the bespectacled, graying 48-year-old Republican senator outlines his subject matter like a sprightly, clear-minded professor, taking time to focus his gaze on each listener. At this point, he is still supporting the controversial federal gasoline tax and $60 billion in Medicare cuts included in the pact. Gramm notes that the 12-cent tax amounts to only a fraction of the Gross National Product, and thus its impact will hardly be felt. The reporters scribble and nod.

Later Gramm, who declared in a March 1989 opinion article that “higher gas taxes are unfair to low- and middle-income workers . . . and I don’t intend to let Congress raise [them],” is asked about his apparent change of heart. “I think it comes down to whether you want to protest or you want to govern,” says Gramm, a member of the leadership junta that negotiated the budget agreement eventually rejected by Congress and replaced with one more agreeable to rank-and- file members. “I came here to govern.” The months-long struggle to do something, anything, about the budget-taxing gasoline, taxing millionaires, closing loopholes, opening loopholes-brought Phil Gramm to a kind of crossroads in his career-a career that some hope {and many others fear) will take him to the White House. Gramm repeated his came-to-govern sound bite for endless minicams over several weeks, then abruptly returned to his original incarnation as the no-new-taxes commando, decided he’d rather protest than govern, and voted against the spit-and-bailing-wire deficit package that was hated even by most of its supporters.

Still, there seems to be a new Gramm, the team player increasingly comfortable with the politics of compromise. Once so acerbic and arrogant that Washingtonian magazine named him one of the most unpopular members of Congress, Phil Gramm is no longer the man most likely to buck the tide. The new Gramm, who easily won a second term November 6, defeating underfunded Fort Worth Democrat Hugh Parmer with 60 percent of the vote, is increasingly being written about and talked about as an influential member of D.C.’s inner circle. The National Journal, a respected Washington policy publication, included Gramm in its 1990 list of congressional rising stars. The Wall Street Journal, taking note of Gramm’s role in budget negotiations, wrote that he is “fast trading his reputation as a bomb thrower for one as a pragmatic insider.” By most accounts, Gramm’s move to the inside is a prelude to his almost certain bid for the presidency. The most ambitious Texas politician since John Connally, Gramm is positioning himself for a 1996 run for the White House, whether or not Republican President George Bush is reelected in 1992. That’s why Gramm needs to win popularity contests these days in a way he did not when as a brilliant young rogue he took on the House Democratic leadership in the early years of the Reagan Administration. He could make trouble in the House, where he served first as a Democrat and then as a Republican from 1979 to 1985, and still succeed in the raucous locker room of the lower chamber. The Senate is a much different institution, and he has tempered his style according to its more genteel, men’s-club atmosphere.

As Gramm has gained acceptance inside the Beltway, he has toned down his near-religious commitment to his conservative agenda. In his early days in the Senate, such publications as The New York Times referred to his battle to trim federal spending as an almost holy “crusade,” but Gramm is a much nimbler politician than he once was. He is still loyal to his strong anti-government agenda, but these days he is much more of a pragmatist. He backed the original budget agreement, taxes and all, for example, only to abandon it after the plan drew opposition across the political spectrum, and especially from his core conservative constituents, who were angered over the Republican retreat on opposition to tax increases.

That move pleased the right-wing no-taxers, but it remains to be seen whether Gramm will-or can-change his ideological stripes enough to succeed on the national stage, where extremists of either the right or left tend to fare poorly. By many accounts, his record on such issues as the environment, civil rights, and some social welfare programs reveals him to be the cold, heartless conservative ideologue many of his detractors say that he is. He is high on the enemies lists of environmental groups, pro-choice activists, and labor unions. He cast a decisive vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1990. He’s come out against funding for student loan programs, Head Start, and handicapped education. He voted against assigning previously unallocated money to a food program for the elderly and impaired, boldly declaring, “I urge my colleagues not to succumb to, again, this new version of the old siren song; ’Here is someone who can be helped. Don’t worry about the deficit.’ ” With his hefty campaign fund, Gramm has managed to ward off heavyweight challengers in Texas who could make his record an issue. How would he fare, in Texas or nationally, against a prominent, well-funded opponent?

His retooled identity already has helped Gramm clear the path ahead. In November, Gramm’s GOP colleagues elected him chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. Gramm will no doubt use the bottom-rung leadership position to forge contacts with big-dollar contributors across the nation. And by raising money for other Republican officeholders, he will build up a stack of political IOUs that he can exchange for endorsements and logistical support in key presidential primaries. For Phil Gramm, the esteem of his colleagues has never been as crucial.



TO BE SURE, GRAMM IS NOT BOASTING to the folks in Abilene and Amarillo about his new-found acceptance on Capitol Hill. Most successful politicians play the inside game while chastising the Washington establishment. But few politicians have cultivated the role of contrarian as aggressively as Phil Gramm, and few politicians, if any, work as hard at maintaining it.

In the House and in the Senate, Gramm has held fast to a few defining themes. Doing “the Lord’s work in the Devil’s City,” he is on a mission to free Joe Six-pack, the classic little guy, from the chains of taxation and Big Government. He is the Gramm of Gramm-Latta, (the Reagan budget cuts of the early Eighties) and, more famously, the Gramm of Gramm-Rudman, the automatic budget-cutting ax-the two most sweeping budget reforms in recent memory. Phil Gramm is no ordinary candidate, as his commercials remind voters. He is a politician called to government service by the power of his ideas, the eternal antagonist, the outsider.

“I did not go to Washington to be loved, and I have not been disappointed,” the former Texas A&M economics professor likes to tell crowds, and they like to be told it. On the campaign trail in Victoria, Texas, this past October, Gramm the outsider crowed to an admiring and rambunctious crowd; “I come here so often to be convinced that it is those people in Washington who are crazy and not me.” High-school cheerleaders shake red-and-white pompons. A child perched on a man’s shoulders waves a small, plastic American flag. The crowd applauds.

In small towns like Victoria, Gramm’s Texas twang grows more pronounced as he takes up the sword for Everyman, best exemplified by his rousing stump standard about a hard-working Mexia printer named Dickie Flatt. If a federal program isn’t worth taking money out of Flatt’s pocket, Gramm has been saying for years, then it isn’t worth paying for. Gramm calls this the Dickie Flatt test, and nearly everyone who has heard the schtick, from highbrow intellectuals to lowbrow working stiffs, admits to being moved by it.

Most observers of Gramm’s career trace his talent on the stump to his days as an inspired economics instructor at A&M. Professor Gramm made the arcane tidbit of economic lore relevant to everyday life, and Senator Gramm does the same as a politician. He speaks in easily understood symbols, like Dickie Flatt. and his philosophy is more accessible to Ma and Pa than a comic strip. Gramm seldom, if ever, speaks from a prepared text, and he preaches like a tent evangelist talks up the Gospel. In Victoria, even though his remarks were brief, he packed each phrase with the sincerity of a caring, intimate friend-“I love the people who live here,” he declared with convincing oomph.

Gramm is just as earnest one-on-one. During a short and somewhat accidental encounter in the halls of the Capitol, Gramm’s handshake is firm, his eye contact steady but not intimidating. He bubbles with disarming kindness and offers to chat on his way to his office. Rumbling along on the subway car that shuttles senators and lesser beings from office buildings to the Capitol, Gramm explains that he is as comfortable in the Senate as he is talking to his constituents, “Maybe that’s because neither one of my parents graduated from the eighth grade,” he says, sitting up from his customary slouch to offer this proof of his affiliation with the common man, despite his red power-tie and finely tailored dark suit.

He is always on, always prepared to turn a phrase that harks back to his childhood or evokes some image that neatly sums up his vision of the American experience. Recently, when some Republican intellectuals spoke of the need for a “new paradigm” that would help the party attract moderates and women, Gramm said he liked the idea even though the word would be hard to explain to his “momma”-a constant reference point in Gramm’s politics.

When Gramm can be reasonably certain that the coverage will be positive, he can be an obsessive publicity seeker. In Gramm-Rudman and Gramm-Latta, of course, he has two impressive pieces of legislation to his credit-bills that, by all accounts, were the product of his own heartfelt beliefs. But Gramm always seems mindful that it is simply not enough to accomplish something in Washington unless you can also take credit for it at home-and reap the political dividends.

That’s why Gramm works harder than anybody at reminding his constituents that he is on the job. Even between election cycles, he travels extensively, hitting every nook and cranny of the state with unparalleled verve. The point of these forays into small-town Texas is usually to get a picture on the front page of a local newspaper, appear on a talk show, take credit for some government goody, and most of all, counter his image as a cold-hearted budget cutter. In one of his routine campaign swings, according to the Dallas Times Herald, Gramm attended 74 events in 58 cities in every region of the state from the Mexican border to the Panhandle. And he pulled off this feat in just 11 days.

In Abilene, the local paper credits Gramm with at least one stop a month in recent years. Towns like Abilene have been ignored or so long by the state’s highest officials hat the very fact Gramm bothers to drop in is appreciated-and that appreciation translates into thousands of votes on election day. The Abilene Reporter-News noted in its 1990 endorsement: “If we had sent one of our own native sons to the Senate, we couldn’t have asked for more attention than we have received from Phil Gramm. Senator Gramm has been in Abilene so often that people have wondered if he has established residence here.”

And if Gramm’s penchant for self-promotion often runs away with him. no one seems to take much notice except a few newspaper reporters and polit-icos. Gramm has been widely criticized for taking credit for the work of others, like the time he scheduled a ribbon cutting for the superconducting super collider when Dallas Democrats John Bryant and Martin Frost, who had been valuable in securing funding for the project, were busy elsewhere. (Because of his contacts to the Republican White House, Gramm often receives advance notice of federal largesse.) Gramm, who told the Tyler Daily Telegraph in 1988 that he supported a trade bill he actually voted against, has elevated political plagiarism to such a science that a new word has been created to describe the practice- Grammstanding.

Gramm’s Grammstanding, amply documented over the years, shows as much as anything else that Texas’s junior senator, for all his Dickie Flatt rhetoric, knows that what Texans really want in a senator is not so much an idea man as an old-fashioned pothole politician who delivers the government goods. Gramm rationalizes his sweet tooth for government money by arguing that if candy is on the table, he’s going to make sure Texas gets its fair share.

Gary Halter, a former mayor of College Station, is a Democrat who does not speak fondly of Phil Gramm. “Anyone who opposes Phil becomes a life-long enemy, and I think I’m on that list,” he says. But even Halter concedes: “When I was mayor, and I needed help with federal funding, Gramm was always helpful.”

In fect, one reason Gramm has moved ever closer to the center of power in the Senate is that it enhances his ability to provide the services his constituents demand-and as long as Gramm delivers, it doesn’t appear to bother the electorate that he preaches deficit reduction while raiding the pork barrel. “Constituent benefits are something that government does in your district but is pork in other districts,” says Tom James, Dallas County Republican chairman. “I think that’s a contradiction for everyone in Congress, including the U.S. Senate.”

Sandy Kress, former Dallas County Democratic chairman, wonders if this contradiction will some day prove to be a political liability for Gramm. “You can’t bring home the bacon if you’re not part of the team,” says Kress. “But the more you’re on the inside the less you can go back to the people and say, ’Hey. I’m changing things up here.’ How do you beat up all this government spending when your aim is to get all the money for your state?”



GROWING UP POOR IN Fort Benning, Georgia, Phil Gramm was an odd-looking child. With his thin features and jug ears, he was never the most likely kid on the block to be elected to the U.S. Senate. Gramm’s father, an Army master sergeant whose military credentials he greatly admired, suffered a crippling stroke and died when the boy was 14. Ironically, over the next several years Gramm himself was able to move ahead thanks in part to the “Big Government” that he would later make a career out of savaging. His mother worked double shifts as a practical nurse to bring in needed income, but both Gramm’s college tuition and graduate work were paid for at least in part by government subsidies and fellowships.

In 1973, shortly after he received tenure from A&M, Gramm phoned a former student named Harry Ledbetter. Ledbetter worked for Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, and Gramm asked the former Texas A&M football star to introduce him to some “movers and shakers” in Austin. “I want to run for Congress,” Gramm explained.

Ledbetter did what he could, managing an introduction with Hobby. But Gramm’s future in politics did not appear promising. He seldom made eye contact when speaking to people. He shook hands poorly and had a fuzzy memory for names. Frequently wearing sandals to class and sporting black-rimmed glasses noticeably out of proportion to his chubby face, he neither looked nor acted like a politician. Still, he would tell colleagues that he wanted to become president of the United States. Making it to Congress seemed unlikely enough.

And there was a darker side to Phil Gramm that made his political aspirations seem even more quixotic. Gramm could be sarcastic, and he appeared to take great joy in cutting others to shreds. According to one source, he was a well-known critic of the Texas A&M football program, and often boasted that his alma mater, the University of Georgia, had a far better program. His fiercely competitive spirit can lead him to hold grudges for years-a quality that some believe masks a streak of insecurity. He once sent Chet Edwards, an opponent in his 1978 congressional bid, this note: “I feel so sorry for you and all your many problems, but you deserve them.” (In the 1990 campaign, Gramm poured extra effort into stopping Edwards in his run for a Waco congressional seat. Edwards won anyway.)

But Gramm’s friends from the A&M days recall him as unusually loyal, steady, and concerned. He was supportive when a close relative was in the hospital and did whatever he could to help others work through problems. He didn’t just care about his friends, he “mothered” them, as one friend put it. And he had a remarkable ability to overcome weaknesses that could cripple other less intelligent men.

Thomas Saving, current chairman of the Aggie economics department and a former colleague of Gramm’s, knew him as a bright academic who could overcome handicaps. Gramm, even as a Ph.D., read slowly, laboriously, mouthing words to himself as he went along. Saving wondered if his colleague had some kind of learning disability, such as dyslexia.

To compensate, Gramm look a speedreading course. This was typical of Phil Gramm. He had an infinite capacity to educate himself, “to absorb,” as Saving put it. Gramm’s working-class background made him something of an outsider in the highbrow world of academia, so he attended the opera and with his wife Wendy, also an Aggie economist, shopped for antiques. He learned how to shake hands and started wearing gold-framed glasses more suited to his face. Phil Gramm seemed able to acquire whatever skill or quality, however complex or mundane, he needed to succeed.

Just after arriving in Washington in 1979 as a newly elected Democratic representative from College Station, Gramm told members that he was the greatest mind to serve in the House since Stephen Douglas. While testifying before the House Rules Committee, he bragged he was the only formally trained economist in Congress, a comment that prompted one ticked-off committee chairman to list other in-House economists. But while the brash and arrogant Gramm, as one member told Rutgers University associate professor Ross Baker, “generated a good deal of dislike around here.” he also gained respect by showing he grasped the nuts and bolts of winning and holding political office. He impressed several colleagues when he boasted that he’d netted $40,000 in contributions in one day by starting on the top floor of an office building in his district and working his way to the ground floor.

Gramm’s fellow conservative David Stockman, then a Republican House member and later Ronald Reagan’s budget director, was also impressed. Stockman shared Gramm’s fire for government reduction and not surprisingly found his Texas colleague an “unexpected, easygoing, brilliant, and sim-patico new ally.” The pair studied the details of the budget the way most members worked at their golf handicaps and in 1980 co-authored a little-noticed alternative spending proposal that was a precursor to the Reagan plans. Years later, Stockman authored a book in which he wrote contemptuously of nearly everyone in Washington. But in Phil Gramm, he found more than just a politician who mouthed the rhetoric of deficit reduction and tax cuts. Wrote Stockman: “Deep down in his soul, Phil Gramm was a hardcore anti-spender.”

He was lucky, too. For nearly 40 years, right-wing idealists like Stockman and Gramm labored in relative obscurity in America, often the butt of liberal jokes. In 1981, after Gramm easily won a second term, Ronald Reagan’s election almost miraculously provided a context and mandate for Gramm’s conservative agenda-and, of course, the advancement of his career. The Reagan landslide so devastated the Democrats that with a Republican majority in the Senate, and a numerical but not a working Democratic majority in the House, the swing votes on such key issues as the federal budget rested with Phil Gramm and about 50 other conservative Democrats known as the Boll Weevils. The door was open for an independent-minded junior member like Gramm to seize power.

No one disputes that the support and opportunity the White House provided Gramm helped him leap to center stage in the House. But by most accounts, the White House needed Phil Gramm just as much as the second-term congressman from College Station needed the backing of a popular president. Nearly everyone in Congress-including such masters of gut politics as then-Majority Leader Jim Wright-underestimated just how savvy, daring, and persuasive Gramm could be. He served the White House as floor tactician, budget architect, and inspirational leader. Gramm had in his first term sized up the House just as he had the halls of academia, and he quickly understood how to succeed. He comprehended the budget as well as-or perhaps better than-the most seasoned House member. And he could not only articulate the most obscure details in understandable language, but he could take a weighty concept and translate it into the arcane details of legislation. Many insiders say that without Phil Gramm, the Reagan administration would have been hard pressed to write its sweeping budget proposals, let alone pass them. His academic background made him an expert in an institution where expertise is a ready-made source of power.

Too, Gramm had an uncanny understanding of where power existed in Washington- and most of all, he knew how to use it. His ideas about government were like the Holy Grail, and he was willing to do whatever it took to advance them. “The lesson in politics is that when you take risks they bite you in the ass,” says one longtime congressional aide. “Gramm was different. He was willing to take any risk he could.”

Gramm persuaded Jim Wright to champion him for a Budget Committee seat, arguing that his association with Budget Director Stockman would aid the dialogue between House Democrats and the White House. Almost immediately, Gramm rewarded Wright’s patronage with treachery. Gramm would attend the committee’s closed-door Democratic caucus meetings, then report the details of the proceedings to Stockman.

Gramm openly broke promises to the Democratic leadership and infuriated his colleagues by parading around the Rose Garden with the Great Communicator at his side. In 1983, when Gramm’s Democratic colleagues retaliated by bouncing him off the Budget Committee (by most accounts the first such ouster since 1911), Gramm seized the opportunity. In a supernova of publicity, he switched to the Republican Party, resigned his seat, and recaptured it in a special election. Mark A. Holcomb, an aide to Gramm before he switched parties, observed: “He was driven by philosophy. But it took a great sense of confidence, it took great political courage to do what he did.”

Gramm used the ouster to portray himself as the victim of heavy-handed liberal bosses, the fat, arrogant embodiments of the wasteful government programs that his constituents hated, In his view, it was a classic case of putting principle above politics, “I had to choose between Tip O’Neill and y’all,” Gramm told admiring crowds in his district. “I decided to dance with the ones that brung me.” The Washington Post’s Mark Shields called the switch a “martyr act” by a politician with the “ability to elevate one’s narrow and selfish interests to high moral principle.” The fact that it was Gramm’s demeanor as much as his deception that led to the ouster never made it past the Potomac.

Dennis Randolph, a former aide to Chet Edwards, describes a gradual growth process in Gramm: “He was awkward when he ran in ’78, kind of feeling his way in what was going on. He reacted as a professor. The move to change parties was in my mind a brilliant stroke in politics. I don’t think the Phil Gramm of 1978 would have been able to do that. He became a very good politician.”

In 1984, helped by Reagan’s second landslide, Gramm was elected to the Senate, trouncing Democratic State Senator Lloyd Doggett. Almost immediately, pundits wondered how the abrasive, outspoken Gramm could survive-let alone prosper-in the more gentlemanly, clubbish upper chamber. At first, it seemed that he could not. On national television, he accused New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a respected Democratic maverick, of being soft on defense. He was quickly reminded of Senate decorum. “You’re one year in the Senate, fella! You don’t do that to another senator,1’ Moynihan shot back in his best patrician style.

If Phil Gramm did little outwardly to dispel his image as a conservative rough rider, he was quietly and anxiously making a transition to pragmatic insider. Gramm, as always, was a careful reader of the process. And in only his first year in the Senate, he perceived opportunity where many of his more experienced Republican colleagues did not.

One of Gramm’s first acts as a congressman had been to introduce a measure to require the federal government to balance its books-a proposal that was dead on arrival, to put it kindly. But by 1985, Ronald Reagan and Congress had increased the deficit to dizzying heights-almost tripled it, in fact, from Jimmy Carter’s 1981 $78.9 billion deficit to $212.3 billion. When Gramm again offered his budget-balancing measure as an amendment to the debt ceiling increase, his Republican colleagues were overjoyed. Gramm had provided his fellow Republicans a way to demonstrate that they were serious about deficit reduction. And who would take the political risk of saying he was not for reducing the huge deficits? Even liberal godfather Ted Kennedy had no choice but to sign on. And so the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction act was born. With its passage, Gramm seemed to have even more proof that he was doing the “Lord’s work in the Devil’s City.”



DEPENDING ON WHO YOU TALK TO, Gramm-Rudman has been either an important instrument of government discipline or a major flop. The New York Times called it “The Balanced Baloney Act of 1985.” Senator Ernest F. Hollings, the third and often forgotten sponsor of the deficit-reduction act, screamed in 1989: “I’m filing for divorce. The 1990 budget is a spectacular jambalaya of tricks and dodges.” Hollings charged that budget gimmickry had replaced budget responsibility in meeting the Gramm-Rudman targets, which originally had promised a balanced budget by 1991. Conservatives, however, argue that without Gramm-Rudman and Gramm-Latta, the budget deficits would be even greater.

But no matter who you believe, Gramm-Rudman raises important questions about both Gramm’s success as a politician and his potential as a presidential contender-questions that as a Texas senator he has never had to answer. In a presidential bid, would Gramm-Rudman be a victory banner-or an albatross around the candidate’s neck?

Robert Greenstein, the director of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and others argue that Gramm-Rudman is in part a symbol of the failures of the Reagan programs. “It is well accepted by analysts that are not tied to either party, that those [Gramm-Latta] budgets didn’t work,” says Greenstein. “Gramm-Latta increased the budget deficit, and Gramm-Rudman reined it in.”

How much has Gramm himself actually contributed to out-of-control federal spending? He rails against the Washington establishment. But is he any better than the “political leeches and patronage suckers” he once campaigned to replace? During the 1980s, Gramm received $86,098 from S&L interests, according to a Common Cause report. Only five senators received more money from S&Ls. When thrift reform legislation passed, Gramm hobbled the bill with amendments that made it impossible for regulators to seize bankrupt thrifts, according to one report. It was Phil Gramm who backed a measure to leave a $50 billion thrift bailout bill out of the calculations of the budget deficit. “Senator Gramm wants to mask the full scope of the deficit so there is no pressure for taxes so we can get through 1992 with ’read my lips’ intact,” declared Hollings.

In Texas, Gramm has not had to answer many of these questions because nobody of sufficient clout has held his feet to the fire. By the time of Gramm’s October flip-flop on taxes, the lackluster Hugh Partner was so far behind that few were listening to him. Indeed, Gramm has been lucky in his opponents: In 1984, Lloyd Doggett was exactly the kind of liberal-’an Austin liberal, than which there is no whicher,” declared The Dallas Morning News-who was having a hard swim upstream against the Reagan tide; Gramm easily smashed him. But it’s no accident that more formidable and charismatic Democrats like former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros and former Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower have refused to climb into the ring with Gramm. The senator obviously believes in the preemptive strike theory of politics: Raise so much money that you scare off all but token opposition.

According to Karl Rove, a Gramm political consultant, Gramm is a meticulous fundraiser not above checking to make sure that the address or name on a fundraising letter is just right. With at least 66,000 active contributors, Gramm has “a larger donor file than any Texas politician has ever had,” says Rove. At a decadent December 1989, Astrodome fundraiser, Gramm took in more than $2 million, the largest-ever fundraiser of its kind. All told, Gramm raised as much as $16 million for his reelection bid. By contrast, Parmer was able to take in only $1.7 million.

It remains to be seen how well Gramm can do on the national stage-especially if he faces a heavily funded primary opponent with moderate credentials such as Governor Pete Wilson of California. In fact, the recent elections have elevated a number of Republican moderates who could emerge as likely national leaders.

Ken Molberg, chairman of the Dallas County Democratic Party, argues that the election of Ann Richards as governor also signals a looming problem for Gramm. Richards, Molberg points out, did well in Dallas County among Republicans turned off by Williams’s neanderthal approach to social issues. A well-founded Democrat could paint Gramm as an out-of-touch right winger and reclaim moderate voters for the Democratic camp, Molberg believes.

Whatever the future holds, Gramm has already left his imprint on Texas politics. He’s done more than any other public official to transform Texas into a two-party state. He recruits candidates, provides logistical help, and makes countless campaign appearances, sometimes as many as 30 for a single candidate in one year. John Tower, or Lloyd Bentsen, never did as much. Gramm’s backing is not exactly an automatic ticket to success; three of the congressional candidates he supported this fall lost. But the very fact that more formidable Republicans are running-a fact largely attributable to Phil Gramm-keeps Democrats on their toes.

Gramm’s relatively short career has been a precarious balancing act. So tar, he has managed to keep all the balls in the air. But if he takes the next and biggest step of all-a run for the presidency-it may be hard for him to deflect attention from the many contradictions of his political persona. The conventional wisdom at midterm in the Bush presidency is that if Gramm meets Dan Quayle in the 1996 primaries. Gramm wins. But a more formidable candidate (i.e., almost any other nationally known Republican) could give him fits as he tries to hold onto his rightward constituency and woo millions of more moderate voters.

“I’m kind of excited that Gramm is emerging as a prominent national player,” says Ken Molberg. “Once the spotlight is focused on him, I don’t think he’ll stand the scrutiny. I think Phil Gramm is a fish in very shallow water and doesn’t know it.”

Perhaps. And there’s something else: a laBentsen in 1988, Gramm would be runningfor the Senate and the White House simultaneously; that could leave him more vulnerable man ever before. But keep one thingin mind: Phil Gramm has been capable ofreinventing himself before. And this timehe’s got six years to do it.