WEST PALM BEACH, Florida -- The inside-the-Beltway
sophisticates in Washington sneer at the way Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas likes to talk about applying what he calls the Dicky Flatt test. It's corny and simplistic, they say.
But when Mr. Gramm did his number on Dicky Flatt for a gathering of Republican activists here the other day, they loved it. And they showed their appreciation with vigorous applause, suggesting perhaps that they are more interested in how their money is spent than in whether the Texas Republican is corny.
For the many who don't know yet, Dicky Flatt is a constituent of Senator Gramm who runs a printing business in Mexia, Texas, and is one of those people who, Mr. Gramm says, pay their taxes, play by the rules and help pull the wagon. So Mr. Gramm says he judges each decision about federal spending on the basis of whether he feels justified in taking money from Dicky Flatt to pay for it.
It is simplistic and gimmicky. But the fact is that all politicians at all levels are guilty of using gimmicks and offering simplistic ideas to make their points.
And the point that Senator Gramm is making is a valid one that many voters believe too many politicians miss too much of the time -- that is, that the spending decisions made in Washington have real meaning to the taxpayers out there beyond the Beltway. Indeed, if there was a single message in the results of both the 1992 and 1994 elections, it was that Americans are tired of politicians in Washington saying that they know what is best and thus should make the decisions for everyone.
It was that kind of thinking that led 62 percent of the 1992 electorate to vote for two politically flawed candidates, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, and against an incumbent president, George Bush, who was not personally unpopular. And it was that kind of thinking that led the 1994 electorate to turn out the Democrats who had been in power so long.
It was also the reaction against Washington-knows-best thinking that crystallized the opposition to President Clinton's health-care reform plan in 1993.
The Republicans seeking their party's 1996 presidential nomination all seem to understand what voters are saying. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole tells everyone about how committed he is to returning power to the states and brandishes his copy of the 10th Amendment to the Constitution.
Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander's campaign thesis is that "we know what to do" back home and don't need Washington to tell us. The underpinning of Patrick J. Buchanan's candidacy is that he is not a politician. And Phil Gramm has the Dicky Flatt test.
No one would argue that Mr. Gramm's approach is political magic. He has been using the Dicky Flatt number in Texas since 1984 and nationally since his keynote address to the Republican convention at Houston three years ago. And the fact that it plays well with a conservative party audience here doesn't suggest it will work with all voters everywhere.
Indeed, the senator is still having a problem gaining any traction in the New Hampshire primary campaign, where the most recent opinion poll found him running behind Messrs. Dole, Buchanan and Alexander despite a much-publicized success in tying Senator Dole in a straw vote in Iowa in which the Kansan had been the overwhelming favorite.
Nor are the approaches of any of the other Republican candidates electrifying the primary constituencies. Senator Dole is running well ahead in the opinion polls but is clearly not totally convincing as a candidate running against a system of which he has been a part for 35 years. And Mr. Alexander's red-checked-shirt gimmick, another one disdained by the sophisticates, has not yet lighted any visible fires among the voters. Mr. Buchanan seems to evoke emotional zeal from his followers, but they still seem to be a limited constituency.
One clear indicator that none of these Republicans has taken hold is the intense interest in another possible contender, Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
At the moment, all these active candidates are campaigning intensively here in Florida for votes in the Republican straw poll -- grandly called Presidency III -- that will be taken at a party convention at Orlando next month.
But the 3,500 delegates who will vote in that poll are largely party activists and conservatives for whom tax-and-spend questions are still high on the agenda. And that suggests that Senator Gramm may have some market for his little story about Dicky Flatt.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.