A strange campaign considers the 'wrong track' numbers

April 15, 1996|By JACK W. GERMOND and JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- In the strange presidential campaign of 1996, President Clinton held a small ceremony in the White House Rose Garden the other day to reiterate his support for reforms in pension laws.

It was the kind of media event so lacking in news that it received only perfunctory attention from the television networks and newspapers for whom it was intended. And you have to wonder if many of the voters the president was targeting ever became aware of the proposals.

But Mr. Clinton and his strategists were focused on a critical problem for the White House in the campaign ahead -- how to allay the economic concerns of American workers at a time when all the usual economic indicators are favorable. The problem is defined by a consistent finding of opinion polls that runs contrary to years of experience.

For campaign strategists, one of the most telling indicators from polls -- and perhaps the single most telling figure -- is the response to a standard question about whether the country is generally "headed in the right direction" or "off on the wrong track."

That question, or some variation of it, has been asked by most poll-takers for years.

Moreover, until now, there has been a predictable pattern. When the economy seems to be doing well, the "wrong track" number, as politicians call it, registers at a low level, perhaps in the 20 to 25 percent range. But when the economy is going sour, that number rises steadily.

The economy is not the only factor that appears to influence this finding. The "wrong track" number dropped sharply, for example, when President George Bush carried out the successful war in the Persian Gulf early in 1991. And it ran in the low 20s when President Clinton was inaugurated in an apparent reflection of national optimism developing from a new administration in Washington.

Poll patterns

But the pattern of correlation between the state of the economy and the polling figures is well established or, at least, has been clear until now.

The difference these days is that the "wrong track" number is running about 60 percent at a time when unemployment has been declining and inflation has remained under control.

For President Clinton's political managers, this should be a red alert because the usual rule in the past has been that a wrong track figure of 50 percent or higher is a distinct threat to incumbents. Mr. Bush's advisers ignored a similar finding early in 1992 and paid a heavy price. Indeed, in that case, the wrong track figure climbed into the 70 to 80 percent range in mid-1992.

The explanation for the current anomaly seems to be that the usual measures of the health of the economy -- such as the jobless and inflation rates -- no longer square with the assessments of the economy that Americans are making on their own.

Instead, the evidence suggests that there is indeed an economic uncertainty abroad in the land that is a product of the rush by American businesses to "downsize" -- meaning not just to lay off workers, but to abolish jobs permanently in large numbers.

If that premise is accurate, the logic in Mr. Clinton's initiative on pensions is obvious. He supports, he said, legislation that would protect existing pensions, liberalize the rules for Individual Retirement Accounts and provide portability for some retirement savings plans. The message was that if you get forced into a career move, your pension may be at least partially protected.

Old proposals

But Mr. Clinton and Republicans in Congress already had put forward such proposals in the past. And the problem has been their inability to find agreement on enacting such protections as part of other tax legislation.

So, whatever the intended message, the lesson voters may draw from this whole episode is that, once again, the federal government is unable to act to solve an obvious problem.

What this situation suggests is that the strange presidential campaign of 1996, in its early stages, may be largely invisible and unsatisfying to the electorate. The voters said in both 1992 and 1994 that they were dissatisfied with the way the White House and Congress deal with the concerns of most Americans.

What voters are seeing these days is a continuation of the same paralysis that evoked a strong reaction against Mr. Bush in 1992 and against the Democratic Congress two years ago.

If that doesn't change, we can expect many of those voters to turn their backs on the whole process in November.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 4/15/96

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