Market bearing bad news for GOP

July 24, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Investors aren't the only Nervous Nellies in the wake of the stock market slide. Republican members of Congress facing re-election in November are becoming increasingly worried that they will take the hit for the debacle, if only because of the GOP's historical connection with big business.

As the party in control of the White House, the GOP also risks the possibility of being blamed, particularly because its own CEO, George W. Bush, comes from a corporate background with many friendships and heavy campaign support from the business fraternity.

The rival Democrats are leaving no stone unturned in efforts to find culpability in his private enterprise deals and stock sales and to make the most of the Securities and Exchange Commission's inquiry into Vice President Dick Cheney's old energy firm, Halliburton.

Beyond this, there is the simple question on which many voters will make their choice in the fall elections. It was asked with resounding success in 1980 by Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan in debating beleaguered incumbent Jimmy Carter: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"

Mr. Reagan, capitalizing on high rates of interest, inflation and unemployment under Mr. Carter, drove the point home: "Is it easier for you to go and buy things in the stores than it was four years ago? Is there more or less unemployment in the country than there was four years ago?"

The operative time frame now is only two years, but the point will be the same, with savings vanishing and joblessness up: How has the individual voter been affected by developments since the previous election? Only in times of war, when voters' concerns are elevated above the personal, is this question likely to be trumped by another consideration.

While it can be said, as President Bush repeatedly does, that the United States is at war against global terrorism, the absence of serious World War II-like sacrifice at home has enabled the country to maintain a largely business-as-usual atmosphere. So the "Reagan question" may well apply in November.

If so, the president and his party will face the same tactic that helped undo his father in his own failed re-election bid against Bill Clinton in 1992. In that campaign, Mr. Clinton did not utter the "Reagan question" explicitly but it was inherent in his strategist James Carville's much-quoted reminder: "It's the economy, stupid."

The senior President Bush played into Mr. Clinton's hands then by seeming aloof to the concerns of voters hit by recession and unemployment.

In 2000, many attributed Al Gore's defeat at the hands of the junior Mr. Bush to his failure to apply the "Reagan question" in reverse; that is, to remind the individual voter that he was better off after eight years of Clinton-Gore prosperity.

Instead, Mr. Gore, in his determination to separate himself from the politically tarnished Mr. Clinton, actually said in his nomination acceptance speech: "I'm not asking you to vote for me on the basis of the economy we have. ... I ask for your support on the basis of the better, fairer, more prosperous America we can build together." It didn't quite work.

Mr. Reagan's question actually had been used effectively in earlier campaigns, sometimes in criticism, sometimes in defense of presidential performance.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a fireside chat in advance of the 1934 congressional elections, countered critics of his anti-Depression actions by asking: "Are you better off than you were last year? Are your debts less burdensome? Is your bank account more secure? Are your working conditions better? Is your faith in your own individual future more firmly grounded?"

The voters responded then by increasing Democratic strength in Congress. This fall, the Democrats, hoping to knock off Republicans, will be asking the same question -- unless the stock market rebounds by then and soothes voters' rattled nerves about personal pocketbook cares.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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