WASHINGTON - Republican vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney said "it's time" for Al Gore to concede the election, while painting a pessimistic picture yesterday of the economic conditions the next administration will face.
George W. Bush's running mate is the first member of the Republican ticket to call publicly for a Gore concession. "I think history would regard him in a better light if he were to bring this to a close in the very near future," Cheney said.
Gore surrogate Warren Christopher shot down the Republican's suggestion as a premature try at ending the disputed election.
"It's late innings, but it's far from over," said the former secretary of state. "I can assure you that the vice president, when the time comes, will concede in a very gracious way. He understands his obligations to the people of the country."
In an interview on "60 Minutes" last night, Gore said he would not consider conceding until the Florida Supreme Court rules on his requests for hand recounts in two South Florida counties.
But it was Cheney's comment about a looming economic recession that drew the most attention yesterday. A key senator criticized the propriety of even raising the topic.
In an interview broadcast on NBC's "Meet the Press," Cheney contended that Bush's proposed $1.3 trillion tax cut is more necessary than ever, because the decade-long economic expansion may be over.
"We may well be on the front edge of a recession here," Cheney said.
"I would hope that would change people's calculations with respect to the wisdom of the kind of tax cut that Governor Bush has recommended," Cheney added. Bush's sweeping tax-cut plan is "exactly what needs to be done" to "ensure the resumption of long-term economic growth," Cheney said.
Most economists do not believe the country is headed for a recession in the next year, despite a faster-than-expected slowing of the rate of economic growth. The financial markets are anticipating a lowering of interest rates over the next few months by the Federal Reserve, which indicated at its most recent meeting that an economic downturn remains less of a threat than inflation.
Sen. John B. Breaux , a Louisiana Democrat, was sharply critical of Cheney for making such comments while the presidential election remains unresolved.
"There's going to be plenty of time after we settle this election to talk about where we are from an economic standpoint," the senator said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "I don't think it's particularly helpful to debate some of these very serious types of issues while this dispute is still going on."
Breaux's criticism was noteworthy because he is the only Democratic Party official that Bush is known to have spoken with since election night. Breaux has been talked about as a possible member of a Bush Cabinet, a prospect he refused to rule out yesterday.
Andrew Card, who would be chief of staff in a Bush White House, denied that there is any danger in Bush and Cheney delivering blunt economic warnings, which might rattle markets at home and overseas.
Bush is "being very cautious," Card said, adding that Cheney's comments followed a briefing from his chief economic adviser, Larry Lindsey. "The economy is a little bit fragile right now, and the markets are reflecting that. But, hopefully, when the election results are finally settled and Governor Bush can begin to put together his team and announce it, there will be restored confidence."
The remarks by the Bush team appeared to be part of a new strategy to beat the drums for a major, across-the-board cut in income tax rates.
Such a proposal would likely face considerable opposition in the evenly divided new Congress. It was barely mentioned by Republican congressional leaders during a photo session with Bush at his ranch on Saturday.
At that session, Bush drew attention to what he called "indications of some potential slowdown" in the economy. He emphasized the need to put tax relief on the congressional agenda next year and repeated his often-argued view that cutting taxes would stimulate economic growth.
The decision to deliver warnings about the economy represents a major shift by Bush and his running mate and marks a further escalation of their effort to project a sense of inevitability about a Bush administration.
Only last Wednesday, Cheney cautiously refused even to acknowledge that the economy might be slowing a bit.
"I am personally not an economist, but it is a subject, clearly, that's of interest to us," the former defense secretary said at a Washington news conference. He added that "there's nothing for us to do vis-a-vis those circumstances at this point."
A recession, while never welcomed by politicians, usually inflicts the least political harm if it occurs early in an administration and lasts only a short time, because voters are likely to forget it by the next election.