The ostensible trigger for former Sen. Phil Gramm’s sudden resignation on Friday as national co-chairman of Sen. John McCain‘s presidential campaign was a Robert Novak column released on Saturday, sources in the McCain campaign told The Washington Times.
In the column, Mr. Novak said the two longtime Republican comrades had “patched up their relationship” and that Mr. Gramm would remain as Mr. McCain’s economic adviser and campaign surrogate.
A senior McCain official and friend of Mr. Gramm’s said privately that the former Texan learned of the Novak column and wanted out of the campaign. Mr. Gramm “was not pushed; he jumped,” the official said.
The resignation cleared the decks for Carly Fiorina, the ex-Hewlett-Packard chairwoman, to be Mr. McCain’s top economic adviser and replace Mr. Gramm as the leading prospect for Treasury secretary in a McCain administration.
Long an icon of traditional conservatives, Mr. Gramm was considered the towering intellectual figure in the McCain campaign, dispensing not only economic but foreign policy advice the candidate could not find elsewhere - until Mr. Gramm, during an editorial board meeting at The Washington Times on July 9, made some off-handed remarks about Americans tending to whine about an economy that he said is in fact still highly competitive with the rest of the world.
He said the only U.S. economic recession today is “mental.”
The instant-response Barack Obama campaign team leaped to exploit the Gramm remarks as indicative of how out of touch Mr. McCain and his advisers are with the real world of mortgage foreclosures and soaring gas and food prices.
Then things got confused for an often confusing McCain campaign.
Mr. McCain, who was Mr. Gramm’s 1996 national presidential campaign chairman, said forget about Treasury - Mr. Gramm might instead get some obscure diplomatic post, if the people there would have him.
Nevertheless, Mr. Gramm publicly apologized to Mr. McCain for the remarks, and the issue appeared to drift off the political screen. And the McCain campaign said Mr. Gramm would continue as economic sage.
But on Sunday, Mrs. Fiorina declared, “I don’t think Senator Gramm will any longer be speaking for John McCain, and I think John McCain was crystal clear about that.”
Late Friday the McCain campaign released Mr. Gramm’s statement, in which he said, “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.”
That sparked talk among GOP insiders late Friday and early Saturday about who inside the campaign was out to get Mr. Gramm from the beginning and had maneuvered Friday’s sudden exit.
The senior McCain official insisted privately Saturday that “there was no move afoot to push him out - I was standing here when it happened.”
He said Mr. Gramm phoned campaign headquarters and talked to his old friend and former 1996 campaign strategist Charlie Black, a Washington power broker who left his own firm to volunteer to travel with Mr. McCain.
“Phil found out about the Novak column and he wanted out,” the McCain official said privately. “There was a mild attempt to convince him to hold off, to discuss it further. Gramm said he didn’t want to be a distraction for McCain.”
According to the source, “someone at the highest level of the campaign - not Mr. McCain himself - said, ‘You don’t need to do that, Phil.’” But Mr. Gramm didn’t want to be deterred.
But another campaign professional close to many in the McCain organization suggested someone had decided days ago that Mr. Gramm was finished.
“Carly Fiorina is an acolyte of Rick Davis [a top MCain campaign adviser],” the operative said privately.
“Gramm had confronted Davis about 3EDC, a company Davis had an ownership interest in - originally undisclosed to Mr. McCain and that was raking in money from the McCain campaign,” the operative in daily contact with the campaign said..
“Gramm told Davis while [former campaign manager Terry Nelson and former McCain strategist John Weaver] were there Davis, should leave,” the operative said. “Gramm urged McCain to not promote Davis.”
Mr. Davis in the recent past has rebuffed media questions, saying, “I don’t talk to reporters.”
Top McCain officials on Saturday did not make Mr. Davis available for comment, but adamantly denied he had anything to do with Mr. Gramm’s departure.
In the view of a McCain friend, “Carly Fiorina wants the Treasury job and saw Gramm as a rival. My view is someone close to Davis, maybe Paul Manafort, Wayne Berman or Scott Reed leaked” to Mr. Novak to get him to mention that Mr. McCain was going to keep Mr. Gramm on the campaign.
In his meeting at The Times, Mr. Gramm discussed foreign policy as well as economic issues. Some conservatives of his general persuasion have argued that the war on Iraq was wrong in principle, but he said his focus is no longer on “whether we should ever have gotten involved” in the Iraq war now that the U.S. is there but on how to avoid defeat.
Asked if the same rationale applies to leaks from various U.S. and Israeli officials that if the United States doesn’t destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities before year’s end, Israel will - with Washington’s quiet blessings.
“My own view I think it would be a cowardly act to ask Israel to do this,” Mr. Gramm said. “One, they don’t have the equipment we have. They couldn’t do it precisely, which means there would be more civilian casualties. They will lose airmen that we might not lose.”
Mr. Gramm said Iran’s developing nuclear capability “is fundamentally our problem. We are the leader of the world. So I would just see it as an act of national cowardice myself.”