Good News Fails to Help Clinton

November 06, 1994|By CARL M. CANNON

President Clinton has been traversing the country frantically in the past few days, ticking off the reasons why he thinks people should vote Democratic on Tuesday, chief among them that the nation's economy is doing so well.

This is no idle boast, but it raises a host of questions that ultimately can be answered only by the voters and the nation as a whole.

Does good economic news bode well historically for a president's party in midterm elections? What is the connection between rosy economic indicators after two years and a president's re-election chances after four years? And if the economy is humming along, why don't Americans feel better about their politicians?

The short answers, in order, are: Generally. None. And, good question.

First, the numbers:

Almost halfway into the Clinton administration's four-year term, unemployment has dropped from 7.1 percent to 6.2 percent. Productivity has increased each quarter. Mortgage rates are about the same. Inflation is firmly in check.

"In 21 months, we have cut the deficit three years in a row," Mr. Clinton said last week in Detroit. "We have shrunk the federal government, invested more in your jobs, your future. And we have 4.6 million new jobs in America."

This is flowery, campaign-year description of what's going on, but it is matched by sober Wall Street analysts.

"We're still in the sweet spot where growth is solid, yet inflation remains in check," Robert Dederick, an economist with Northern Trust Co. in Chicago, said Oct. 28.

That was the day the government released figures showing that the federal budget deficit for this year would be lower than TTC expected, while the productivity rate of 3.4 percent for the quarter was higher than expected.

In addition, consumer spending, which fuels two-thirds of economic activity, climbed in the third quarter, at an annual rate of $26.1 billion, more than double the rate in the second quarter.

Upon the release of those figures, Vice President Al Gore summoned reporters to the White House. "The economy is growing very strongly," he said, "with historically low inflation -- the best of all possible worlds."

The White House chief of staff, Leon E. Panetta, added in an interview the same day: "I don't think you could ask for a better set of numbers."

The president and his aides insist that all this was set in motion by his 1993 economic package, which lowered the projected deficits by raising gasoline taxes on everybody and income taxes on the well-to-do.

How much this had to do with the sustained recovery that followed is debatable. What isn't in dispute is that many Republicans predicted that the sky would fall if Mr. Clinton's economic package passed -- and it clearly hasn't.

So then why are all the signs pointing to a big Republican year? It is a riddle being examined by analysts, political scientists and professionals -- from both parties. Three or four distinct reasons emerge:

* Despite the declining budget deficits, Mr. Clinton fended off demands from Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress for spending cuts that would have cut the deficits even more.

He also reneged on a 1992 campaign-year pledge to cut middle-class taxes, and proposed a welfare reform plan that requires spending more money, not less. In the process, insists the Republican national chairman, Haley Barbour, the president and his party sent a signal that they remained, despite their rhetoric, the "tax-and-spend" Democrats of yesteryear.

In a memo last week to Republican challengers, Mr. Barbour urged them to stress this point:

"No Republican voted for the Clinton tax bill."

* The generally sour mood of the electorate. Mr. Gore, asked why voters aren't more upbeat, given the good economic news, replied:

"For 25 years, we've had a series of body blows -- the assassinations, Watergate, Vietnam, the hostage crisis, 21 percent interest rates, stagflation, Iran-contra -- the growing conviction that the government was lying to people," he said. "And I don't think we have had a steady, uninterrupted stretch of good, solid progress during which we can kind of regain our natural American optimism and self-confidence."

One Democratic campaign consultant active this year in several campaigns framed the problem more narrowly. He thinks that the public's surly attitude is directed mainly at incumbent

politicians, most of whom are Democrats.

Referring to the ads that seek to demonize the other guy -- ads that have become standard fare in campaigns -- this Democrat said simply: "Maybe we've all done our jobs too well."

* Declining spending power.

"In real life, people don't vote based on the quarterly GDP rate or the unemployment figures," said Daniel Mitchell, an economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "They vote their living standards. And the figure you need to look at is inflation-adjusted, after-tax income by family -- how much more they have, if any, to feed their families, buy clothes and make their rent or mortgage payment."

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