WASHINGTON – Lampooned for calling America a “nation of whiners” whose economic woes were mostly “mental,” former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm stepped down Friday night as a co-chairman of GOP Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign.
For over a week, Democrats had used his comments to bludgeon McCain as callous to the struggles of ordinary Americans.
“It is clear to me that Democrats want to attack me rather than debate Sen. McCain on important economic issues facing the country,” Gramm said in a statement Friday night – the traditional time to release bad news. “To end this distraction and get on with the real debate, I hereby step down as co-chair of the McCain campaign and join the growing number of rank-and-file McCain supporters.”
The resignation was meant to lance a festering political problem, but being forced to jettison a confidant, top adviser and longtime friend also represents a fairly serious setback for McCain.
When cash shortages, a bloated payroll and staff infighting left the McCain effort nearly dead a year ago, it was Gramm who stepped in and led the turnaround. He stumped for McCain, and with him, in early primary states.
But in an interview with the conservative Washington Times last week, the former Texas A&M economics professor argued that the nation’s economic problems are largely “mental” – a message at odds with the feel-your-pain empathy McCain had struggled to emote. The nominee-in-waiting joked that he’d rather send Gramm to serve as ambassador in Belarus, an Eastern European dictatorship, than name him Treasury secretary.
Gramm, in a handful of initial damage control interviews, stuck by his stance.
The McCain camp sent mixed signals. He remained a co-chair, though top aides said he would no longer speak for the campaign.
On Friday, conservative columnist Robert Novak reported that Gramm would in fact continue to both advise and speak on behalf of McCain. That fueled a fresh round of taunting from Democrats and led to Gramm’s ouster.