WASHINGTON — Washington. - The Democrats, sensing opportunity where there was none six months ago, now are taking great delight in comparing George Bush to Herbert Hoover.
It is grossly unfair, of course, but no one ever said politics was supposed to be fair. What counts is what resonates with voters. And the Hoover comparison resonates.
It touches a chord not because the nation is about to enter another Great Depression (on that point, one might get some argument), but because a contract has been broken, a vision shattered, an illusion turned to harsh reality.
The contract, the vision, the illusion are all the same. It was that appeal to American optimism, that belief in Ronald Reagan's ''magic of the marketplace,'' that faith in uninterrupted prosperity that gave Presidents Reagan and Bush a special place in the hearts of American voters.
The Democrats had preached doom and gloom and spreading the wealth, not making more of it. They had wanted to turn inward, bash the Japanese and rely on government planning. Reagan and Bush had stressed individual effort, low taxes and smaller government. They were upbeat while the Democrats were downbeat, and they won.
After a taste of the Excessive Eighties (Business Week's apt phrase), Americans find the Nasty Nineties terribly unappetizing. The retrenchment began in the first full quarter that Mr. Bush was president -- the second quarter of 1989. Americans have seen nothing but subpar economic growth or decline since. Income and job growth have stagnated. Many Americans feel that the nation's glory as an economic powerhouse is over.
This was not what the Reagan Revolution was supposed to be about. After believing in it whole-heartedly, many Americans feel a sense of betrayal from the government's economic strategy of the past decade, and now can see how it caused them to live beyond their means.
The comparison to former President Hoover sticks because Mr. Bush has permitted the sluggishness to linger, almost in tacit admission that it is time to atone for our profligacy. He violated a campaign pledge and raised taxes a year ago. And now he rejects new tax cuts to stimulate the stalled economy, explaining that the deficit ''matters.'' Mr. Reagan would never have made such a statement.
Hoover also was obsessed with the budget deficit, and cut spending and raised taxes in an effort to balance federal finances at a time of great national suffering. Hoover's chief economic adviser, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, told him in 1930 a depression might not be such a bad thing.
''It will purge the rottenness out of the system,'' Mellon said, according to Richard Norton Smith's biography of Hoover. ''High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, lead a moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.''
These harsh remarks are faintly reminiscent of rhetoric by Budget Director Richard Darman and Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady. Mr. Darman, in particular, has lectured Americans for their selfishness and their ''I want it now'' attitude.
Mr. Bush also invites comparison to Hoover because he gives the impression that he does not care about the domestic economy, an impression that is not based on truth, just as it was not true with Hoover. Yet appearance often matters more than reality.
The president's love of foreign travel and foreign policy feeds this impression. In supporting a $350-per-child tax credit, Rep. Marty Russo, D-Ill., said Mr. Bush has already busted the budget by assisting various countries, yet does not seem to care about his own people. ''George Bush is an international president; he's not a domestic president,'' said Mr. Russo. Such comments ring true with many people.
In vetoing bills to extend unemployment compensation benefits, Bush may truly have acted upon principle, just as he is standing on principle in supporting a capital-gains tax cut for wealthy Americans while millions of poor Americans suffer. In fact, the president may be absolutely correct in many of his economic judgments in the long run. But as the economist John Maynard Keynes once said, in the long run we are all dead.
Like Hoover, Mr. Bush is unfortunate enough to be the president at a time when the party's over and it's time to clean up. But President Bush can learn much from Hoover -- specifically, not to emulate the imperious way Hoover brushed off the seriousness of the problem and created the widespread feeling that he did not care.
Mr. Bush needs to stay at home and show us he cares. Instead of trying to make Congress the scapegoat, he needs to reach out for compromise to ease some of the economic pain in the country. In a crisis, the label of obstructionist will stick to him, not to Congress. He needs to develop an economic vision of his own totally separate from the Reagan plan.
The American people are anxious, even frightened. They look to the president to define the economic problem and show them a way through it. Instead, they see nothing but political conflict and partisan bickering, with the president leading the charge.
The president's chief job is to manage the economy through an (( era of austerity and lay the groundwork for another wave of growth, creativity and productivity. He will not be another Hoover if he levels with us and shows us he has a heart.