On the day that he took the oath of office as a freshman congressman in January 1979, Phil Gramm found himself standing next to former state senator Kent Hance of Lubbock, another freshman. Already friends, they had attended the Super Bowl together the previous year, and when the Dallas Cowboys had scored a touchdown, Gramm had shouted to Hance above the cheers, “If we cut spending and balance the budget, they’ll be yelling this way for us.” It was the first indication for Hance, himself a person of considerable ambition, that Gramm’s absorption with politics was even more intense than his own. Now, as the swearing-in ceremonies droned on, came another revelation. Looking around the crowded House floor, Hance leaned over to Gramm and whispered, “How many of these people do you think want to be Speaker?” Gramm gave him a look of disbelief: “You mean president.”
Of all the qualities required of a president of the United States – vision, character, charisma, credentials, leadership, political skill, and so on – the one indispensable trait is a relentless hunger for the job. Phil Gramm has it. Although naked ambition is usually regarded as repellent in American politics, Gramm has never tried to clothe his. No sooner had the Texas A&M economics professor won his party’s nomination to Congress (he was a Democrat then) than he said, “I didn’t give up my career to write articles and give speeches. I want to be a worker.” As a freshman U.S. senator in 1985, following his switch to the Republican party, he announced, “I’m ambitious, but I’m ambitious to have an impact.” By 1990, he was so open about his intention to run for president in 1996 that when he sought the chairmanship of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), opponents claimed – unsuccessfully, but accurately – that Gramm would use it to position himself for his White House bid. This is not the textbook way to win the presidency, but Phil Gramm has never been a textbook politician. Uncompromising in his free-market philosophy, disdainful of genteel legislative tradition, so abrasive it has been said that “even his friends don’t like him,” Gramm has nonetheless achieved enormous success as a senator – and, so far, as a presidential candidate.
How far can Phil Gramm’s ambition carry him? Until he won a straw poll of Louisiana Republican activists in January with an overwhelming 72 percent of the vote, hardly anyone gave him much chance to be the GOP nominee in 1996. The problem was not his record: In just his second term in Congress, Gramm had led the fight for Ronald Reagan’s budget cuts; in his first year in the Senate, he had produced the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction plan. His main obstacle was a lack of the attributes that typically win presidential nominations: the appealing personality and ideological base of a Ronald Reagan