A national case of indigestion They are not 'eating our lunch'

Mona Charen

November 04, 1992|By Mona Charen

THE post-mortems on campaign '92 are easy to predict. There will be the usual condemnations of "negative campaigning," the quadrennial lamentations about voter turnout and perhaps, just perhaps, some press beard-pulling about the failure to report adequately on Bill Clinton's Arkansas record.

I am impelled (only in part by orneriness) to say that I favor negative campaigning -- and I find it a little hilarious that the press is

constantly bellyaching about it. But first, it is important to make a distinction between negative campaigning and scurrilous, baldfaced lies. The latter, we can all agree, are a blight on the democratic process and ought to be shamed out of existence if possible.

But what the press frequently calls negative campaigning is merely identifying for voters that one's opponent is a liberal, or mentioning that he voted for every tax increase he saw while in the legislature, or noting that has told several inconsistent stories about his military service.

All of that is useful information for voters. Here's the odd part: The press rewards its own people handsomely with Pulitzer and other prizes for digging up damaging information about politicians. Why, then, does it sniff and scowl when politicians do the same thing?

But there is another form of negative campaigning that is not condemned and ought to be.

Both Bill Clinton and Ross Perot based their races for the White House on the theme that the United States is in desperate, perhaps fatal, trouble. Mr. Clinton maintained that the "Reagan/Bush years" (linking two eras that are actually very different) were an economic disaster.

Mr. Clinton didn't have to work very hard to adumbrate this thesis. It had been drummed into the public for three solid years by the chattering class in the media and by the Democratic Party. But the Democrats had tried similar doom and gloom messages in 1984 and 1988, and they didn't take.

What changed? Certainly a longer-than-anticipated recession gnawed at people's confidence. But something else changed as well. Not only were liberals upset about "trickle-down" economics, but other voices too were joining the chorus of anxiety.

With the end of the Cold War came national uncertainty about our place. People hear that we are trailing our competitors in the economic race. It is not just liberals who buy into the American decline thesis. Pat Buchanan and other conservatives have been sounding similar alarmist themes. Ross Perot was the folksy exclamation point to an already well-developed fear: "They're eating our lunch."

It isn't true. We are the world's most productive economy and the world's largest exporter. Ross Perot had the capacity to believe whatever he conjured up -- and to look directly into a camera and speak falsely. It simply isn't true that the Japanese get more U.S. patents every year than Americans do, or that 19 of 20 computer chips in this country come from Japan.

George Bush had a point: The candidates who have run for office by running down the country have done us a disservice. It is difficult to know just how demoralized the nation has become as a consequence of this false economic information, but the damage may be profound. A civilization doesn't really decline until it loses confidence in itself.

We have heard that U.S. employment compensation used to be 10 or 11 times that of Germany and Japan and is now almost on par. In the first place, we are still the best-paid workers in the world if you compare purchasing power, and second, it is only natural that we no longer make 10 times as much as the two defeated nations of World War II. That is not a measure of American decline.

Recessions notwithstanding, the American economy has been the world's leading engine of job growth. While employment growth in Europe has been stagnant, the U.S. has created, on average, two million jobs a year for 30 years. We have absorbed millions of American women in the work force smoothly and efficiently.

But we have been fed a steady diet of economic gloom for four years. It's no wonder we have a national case of indigestion.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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