CBS: McCain ‘Backed Into A Corner’ on Gramm Comments

John McCain and Phil Gramm, CBS On Friday’s CBS "Early Show," co-host Harry Smith introduced a segment on comments by John McCain economic adviser Phil Gramm: "Let's talk about the economy now. Number one on voters' minds. Senator John McCain has been backed into a corner by a key economic adviser and forced to disavow some controversial statements." A report by correspondent Bill Plante followed in which he declared: "After spending the past week trying to convince voters that he does feel their pain, McCain was forced into full damage control after his economic adviser appeared to mock the troubles faced by many Americans."

Plante went on to quote Gramm’s "controversial" comments: "Gramm questioned the true extent of the country's economic downturn, saying, 'you've heard of mental depression. This is a mental recession. We have sort of become a nation of whiners, complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline.'" In reality, Gramm’s assertion that America is not in a real recession is completely accurate, as a recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of negative economic growth and there has yet to be even one quarter of negative growth.

As far as Gramm’s "nation of whiners" comment, the "Early Show" would certainly know about that given its own recent whining about the economy. On June 30 Smith talked to economic analyst Mark Zandi and the two of them declared a recession. On June 24, co-host Julie Chen proclaimed a "perfect storm of economic woes" afflicting the nation.

Meanwhile on Friday’s show, Plante concluded his report by explaining: "Gramm said that he'd only been talking about the nation's leaders. But the comment played right into the Democrats charge that Republicans are a bunch of plutocrats who don't care about the average voter." Following Plante’s report, Smith talked to political analyst Jeff Greenfield, who made a similar observation about "plutocratic" Republicans:

Well, okay you're in the suburb of Detroit. An area with 10% unemployment. You're trying to show that as -- even though you're a Republican, but you're not a conventional stereotype Republican, you feel the pain, to coin a phrase, of the workers. And your top economic adviser is calling the country a 'nation of whiners,' saying it's all in your head. Phil Gramm is a long-time free market deregulator guy, and that's not the message McCain is trying to communicate.

Smith then decided to bring up another comment made by a McCain economic advisor:

SMITH: It's interesting because we're in a summer of surrogates, and one of McCain's other surrogates, Carly Fiorina, who, of course, was the CEO of Hewlett-Packard and is another one of his important economic advisers, has been shooting from the lip and you know, sort of running off the cuff. And there was this whole controversy about what she had to say about whether or not insurance companies – would pay – let's look at a bite, and then we'll come back and talk about it.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I guess her statement was that it was unfair that health insurance companies cover Viagra but not birth control. Do you have an opinion on that?

MCCAIN: I don't know enough about it to give you a informed answer.

After Smith laughed at McCain’s awkward reaction to the comment, Greenfield proclaimed: "If you're the oldest candidate ever to run for president, the late night comedians are hammering one thing about you: you're old, you're out of touch. That's not how you want to be seen on television...it's not a message you want to communicate given the fact that you're being looked at through a perhaps unfair prism of the oldest candidate ever."

At the end of the segment, Smith asked Greenfield about Jesse Jackson’s controversial comments about Obama earlier in the week. Greenfield described how great it was for Obama: "I think it vastly helps Obama...And he's trying to say, 'look, I'm not the black candidate. I'm out of a different generation, I have a different message.' Jesse Jackson helped him make that message far better than Obama could."

Here is the full transcript of Friday’s segment:

7:00AM TEASER

JOHN MCCAIN: Phil Gramm does not speak for me. I speak for me.

BARACK OBAMA: America already has one Dr. Phil. We don't need another one when it comes to the economy.

HARRY SMITH: Political showdown over the economic slowdown. John McCain speaks out against the adviser who called America a 'Nation of Whiners.'

7:0AM SEGMENT:

HARRY SMITH: First let's talk about important stuff. Let's talk about the economy now. Number one on voters' minds. Senator John McCain has been backed into a corner by a key economic adviser and forced to disavow some controversial statements. CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante has more on that this morning. Good morning, Bill.

BILL PLANTE: Good morning, Harry. Senator Phil Gramm, former Senator, a key economist, key adviser to John McCain. But when he seemed to be blowing off people who were worried about the economy as a bunch of whiners, it's something the McCain campaign didn't need, and the candidate was blunt in his response.

JOHN MCCAIN: Phil Gramm does not speak for me. I speak for me.

PLANTE: After spending the past week trying to convince voters that he does feel their pain, McCain was forced into full damage control after his economic adviser appeared to mock the troubles faced by many Americans. In an interview with the Washington Times, Gramm questioned the true extent of the country's economic downturn, saying, 'you've heard of mental depression. This is a mental recession. We have sort of become a nation of whiners, complaining about a loss of competitiveness, America in decline.' Barack Obama wasted no time in responding.

BARACK OBAMA: America already has one Dr. Phil. We don't need another one.

PLANTE: Gramm said that he'd only been talking about the nation's leaders. But the comment played right into the Democrats charge that Republicans are a bunch of plutocrats who don't care about the average voter. And McCain, when he was asked about a position for Gramm in his administration, Gramm has often been mentioned as a treasury secretary, said, 'well, maybe he's a candidate for Ambassador to Belarus.' Belarus is a former Soviet republic which is still repressive. Harry.

SMITH: [Laughing] Yeah, and McCain went on to say that he wasn't sure the people of Minsk would be happy about it either.

PLANTE: Right.

SMITH: There you go. Bill Plante at the White House this morning, thank you very much. Joining us is CBS News chief political analyst Jeff Greenfield.

JEFF GREENFIELD: Good morning.

SMITH: You're John McCain, and you bring somebody into your fold like a Phil Gramm, serious heavyweight, long-time service in the Senate, supposedly on the money in terms of the economy. He says stuff like this. What -- how does that rub up against your campaign?

GREENFIELD: Well, okay you're in the suburb of Detroit. An area with 10% unemployment. You're trying to show that as -- even though you're a Republican, but you're not a conventional stereotype Republican, you feel the pain, to coin a phrase, of the workers. And your top economic adviser is calling the country a 'nation of whiners,' saying it's all in your head. Phil Gramm is a long-time free market deregulator guy, and that's not the message McCain is trying to communicate. It steps on a message on the very week when McCain is out there trying to say 'on the economy, I'm with the regular ordinary hurting folk.' Not helpful.

SMITH: Yeah. It's interesting because we're in a summer of surrogates, and one of McCain's other surrogates, Carly Fiorina, who, of course, was the CEO of Hewlett-Packard and is another one of his important economic advisers, has been shooting from the lip and you know, sort of running off the cuff. And there was this whole controversy about what she had to say about whether or not insurance companies-

GREENFIELD: Whether healthcare-

SMITH: -would pay -- let's look at a bite, and then we'll come back and talk about it.

GREENFIELD: Okay.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I guess her statement was that it was unfair that health insurance companies cover Viagra but not birth control. Do you have an opinion on that?

MCCAIN: I don't know enough about it to give you a informed answer.

SMITH: [Laughter]

GREENFIELD: See, Harry, here's why I'm the chief political analyst or whatever you call me. If you're the oldest candidate ever to run for president, the late night comedians are hammering one thing about you: you're old, you're out of touch. That's not how you want to be seen on television. It may be unfair. The other thing about this is he's trying to appeal to women. He's going out to talk to women today. The idea that women may want birth control paid for by health insurance.

SMITH: Right.

GREENFIELD: That's also something that some of the Republican base, particularly if it's unmarried women, are not all happy about. It again, it's not a message you want to communicate given the fact that you're being looked at through a perhaps unfair prism of the oldest candidate ever.

SMITH: Let's go back over to the Democratic side. We have this whole dust-up with the comments Jesse Jackson made off mic about Barack Obama.

GREENFIELD: They were sort of on mic, and he didn't know it.

SMITH: Yeah, well there's no such thing as the mic never being on. And how could you possibly not know that? At the same time, who does that help? Who does it hurt? Does it matter?

GREENFIELD: I think in this case the conventional wisdom is right. I think it vastly helps Obama. He is trying to say to the country. He's not a familiar guy, he's the first African-American nominee or will be. And he's trying to say, 'look, I'm not the black candidate. I'm out of a different generation, I have a different message.' Jesse Jackson helped him make that message far better than Obama could.

SMITH: Jeff Greenfield, do appreciate it, good to see you. Thanks for-

GREENFIELD: I'm going to wait on line for a phone for twelve hours because I have no life.

SMITH: [Laughter] Do appreciate it.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC