Blue-collar blue bloods

I was walkin' along, mindin' my own bidness the other day, when Our Man Phil Gramm popped up and announced to the world that he's a "blue-collar Republican." So now I know how Jessica-who-fell-in-the-well felt.

I went home to lie down from the shock, and then class warfare broke out in the Republican ranks. I had to put a cold compress on my head. Robert Novak said on CNN that discussing class was "unbecoming to a Republican." That's Novak, the party's etiquette officer.

The vision of Gramm in a blue work-shirt is still haunting me ($19.99 at Academy Surplus, Phil), but aside from the injuries I got while falling about laughing, I'm much better now.

All this class warfare was touched off by Steve Forbes and his Itty-Bitty Postcard brainstorm. For you latecomers to the festivities, Mr. Forbes--of the Forbes magazine fortune--is hellbent on making our lives simpler. Thus, he wants to institute a flat tax-rate so we can all file our returns on Itty-Bitty Postcards and eliminate the IRS.

The R's, naturally, are enchanted with this notion: The poor pay more, the rich pay less, and it's all so simple, see? Besides, it does away with yet another gummint bureaucracy.

Lamar Alexander called the idea "nutty," but then he's the one who wears a checkered shirt, thus denoting his membership in the checkered-collar class. Pat Buchanan didn't like it either, but the Republicans are all down on Buchanan these days for going around talking about how average folks are getting a Bad Deal.

Buchanan says a flat tax is like feeding the horses a lot and hoping the sparrows will eventually get something out of it, but that, you see, is putting down Trickle-Down, the sacred Republican theory that making the rich richer somehow helps everyone else. Ronald Reagan, the FDR of the Republican Party, believed in Trickle-Down, so anyone who doesn't is anti-Reagan, which is like being anti-God and real tacky besides.

Jack Kemp, the former football quarterback and Republican brain-trust, further gummed up the works just as all the other R's were ganging up on Forbes for being real rich and not wanting to pay any taxes at all. Kemp is also in favor of a flat tax, but for some unfathomable reason, his flat tax is going to be a lot fairer than Forbes' flat tax. All the other R's on the show agreed that this is so.

The television commentators were priceless in their attempts to help us understand how we will all benefit, or not, from the Itty-Bitty Postcard scheme. "Take an average, middle-class family making $80,000 a year," said one pundit. The median income for a family of four in this country is slightly more than $30,000. That means one half of such American families are living on less than that. Oh well, the guy was only off by 160 percent or so.

Another chunk of the political press corps was at the University of Texas this weekend, peering at Professor Jim Fishkin's experiment. Fishkin is the guy who thought it would be interesting to find out how voters would vote if they knew something more about the issues than they can find out from campaign ads. So he got this scientifically selected random sample of Americans together to study and discuss public policy for three days, and it turned out to be an interesting deal.

The social scientists were in seventh heaven. "So this is what America looks like," they kept saying. Social scientists are used to counting black and white and male and female in polls, but apparently they never think of stuff like guys with ponytails and people in wheelchairs. Two people obligingly died before they could attend the issues convention, which made the statisticians very happy because it was statistically perfect.

As I have long maintained (oh, I am just right all the time), when you get a bunch of perfectly, statistically average Americans together, what you notice is that: (A) they're quite bright; (B) they're quite nice; and (C) they like each other a lot more than they thought they would from seeing each other on the nightly news.

Unfortunately, none of this seemed to affect the politicians, who were just as politicianish as usual.

The fact is that we're not going to get a better form of democracy until we change the way campaigns are financed. Congress is busy making the campaign financing mess worse instead of better, so let's go back to our Truth-in-Packaging proposal. This is the one where we make politicians like NASCAR race-drivers and force them to wear the logos of the special interests who pay for them on their clothes and briefcases. Using a recent study by the Center for Public Integrity on the presidential candidates' top career patrons, we can chart how Truth-in-Packaging would work.

Bob Dole's all-time top career patron is California's Ernest & Julio Gallo, from which Dole has gotten $381,000. (We're not in Kansas anymore.) Imagine him decked out in a fine Ernest & Julio Gallo jacket and a T-shirt that says, "I (heart) Gallo." Dole would also sport an Archer-Daniels-Midland gimme cap ($217,000), and have ADM logos displayed on his campaign buses (170 trips on ADM planes; this courtesy the Forbes campaign via The Nation magazine).

Visualize President Clinton, on the other hand, outfitted in a designer jacket from his top contributor, Goldman Sachs ($107,850), and an "I (heart) Gallo" gimme cap ($50,000).

We also might want to envision Gramm rigged out in a lovely bulletproof National Rifle Association jacket ($440,000), along with an official American Medical Association stethoscope to show the support of his second top career patron ($140,467).

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1996 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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Molly Ivins