WASHINGTON — Washington. -- At the Democratic candidates' debate in New Hampshire Sunday, moderator Cokie Roberts began with a question to all the boys: ''It is January 20, 1993. Last October . . . the unemployment rate went to double digits. . . . What are you going to do within the next week to ease the sufferings of the families of the unemployed?''
Never has a group of politicians been better prepared for a question from a journalist. This is their favorite theme. Why, to end this recession they will move mountains, cut taxes, build highways, never rest, do wondrous things.
There's just one trouble: chances are the country will not be in a recession next January. In fact, there is surely less than a 50-50 chance that we will still be in a recession during the fall general election campaign. Cokie Roberts' double-digit unemployment by October is possible, but far-fetched. Yet the Democratic candidates campaign on promises to cure a problem that probably won't exist when (to be crude) the Democratic nominee will need it most.
Only 19 percent of the voters now have confidence in President Bush's handling of the economy. But that number can bounce back as fast as it sank. Even if unemployment is higher come fall than it is now, that won't matter much politically if the corner has been turned by then. What counts is the direction the economy is moving. After all, even today the GNP is higher than it was throughout most of the fondly remembered 1980s boom.
All this is not to say we have no long-term economic problems, or to excuse George Bush from blame for them. But the long-term case is the one the Democrats should be building today -- not merely because it's true but also because it probably will be the only case available to them in the fall.
And what odds would you give that Saddam Hussein will still be on his perch come general election season -- considering the chance of something befalling him without further American intervention, together with the strong temptation of Mr. Bush to step in and end this embarrassment. Democrats are unwise to make an issue of the defeatus interruptus in Iraq -- especially those Democrats who opposed the enterprise to begin with. If they goad the president into doing something dramatic close to election time, they may actually succeed in turning Americans' short attention span for matters foreign -- currently a valuable Democratic advantage, as the country forgets what obsessed it just a year ago -- into a disadvantage again.
Another tactical error is one the Democratic candidates haven't made yet but are probably about to. In Mr. Bush's forthcoming State of the Union address, according to leaks, he will propose paying for some health-care reforms by limiting the tax deductibility of employer-paid health insurance for people making over $100,000 a year. The president also is said to be thinking of doubling or even tripling the Medicare premium (currently $32 a month) for old folks with incomes over $100,000.
Democrats will be strongly tempted to demagogue both proposals. In Harris Wofford's now-legendary Pennsylvania Senate campaign last fall, he jumped on an earlier leak about plans to limit deductibility of health-care costs. Mr. Wofford's campaign manager, James Carville, now working for Bill Clinton, was asked recently about the Medicare idea and said, ''Medicare and Social Security are programs that benefit all Americans and it's a Republican trick to try to undermine faith in these programs.''
But this is a trap. One of Democrats' few successful themes of recent years has been ''fairness.'' How can the Democrats lay any claim to being the party of fairness if they can't bring themselves to prune government subsidies for people making more than $100,000 a year? It will be pleasant to hear a Republican president endorse an implicit tax increase on the $100,000-plus folks. What will not be pleasant is to watch Republicans twist the fairness knife.
Years ago Kevin Phillips accused the Democratic party of ''reactionary liberalism.'' It's a devastating term. A reactionary liberal is someone more concerned with defending all existing government programs than with serving progressive values. It would be hard to think of a better illustration of reactionary liberalism than a refusal to consider raising the Medicare premium for people over 65 with incomes of more than $100,000.
The impossibility of honest political discussion of the cost of entitlement programs has helped Republicans far more than Democrats. When people are convinced they can have their benefits anyway, they'll vote for the party that proposes to cut their taxes. If a Republican president is actually willing to stick his toe in the water of entitlement reform -- and do it in an undeniably progressive way -- the Democrats would be foolish to scare him out of it. But perhaps they are.
TRB is a column of the New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.