Economic gains force Democrats to shift gears

Presidential candidates had focused on slump

November 02, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

For more than two years, the Democrats seeking the presidency have planned on running a 2004 campaign built around the weak economy that was patterned after Bill Clinton's defeat of President Bush's father in 1992.

But with the economy having surged this past quarter, they are suddenly confronted with the possibility of a far less encouraging historical comparison: that the election year economy could be more like the one Ronald Reagan ran on in 1984, when the country was coming out of a long slump.

The rapid change in the outlook - underscored by figures released Thursday that show the fastest quarterly economic growth since 1984 - is forcing the Democratic presidential candidates to calibrate their attack on Bush's economic record in ways they did not have to a week ago.

It has also left them in danger of looking as though they were clinging to economic gloom.

Rather than simply lamenting the economy's condition, the Democrats now say that one good quarter does not erase three sluggish years.

The growth has not caused a rebound in the job market, they point out, and large budget deficits loom for years.

"For there to be a genuine recovery, it's got to happen in more than economic statistics," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat and presidential candidate, said Thursday on the campaign trail in Buffalo, N.Y. "It's got to happen in the lives of America's middle class and those working hard to get into it."

Many Democrats say they still consider the economy an issue that will benefit them next year. President George Bush lost in 1992 even though employment began growing eight months before Election Day, they say.

"I just think the likelihood - I can't prove this in any way - is that people are going to have uncertainty, not reassurance, about where the economy is headed," said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat and another presidential contender.

But even many Democratic campaign aides concede that their task has just become more difficult.

A sustained recovery could start to reduce projected budget deficits that are at the core of their attacks on the administration's tax cuts.

A turnaround might also cause the job market to improve early enough before Election Day to influence voters.

Adding to the Democrats' challenge is a fundamental economic reality that existed well before household and business spending soared this summer. As much as the economy weakened in the past three years, it was coming off such a high that it remains stronger by most measures than in the early 1990s. That high was reached on Clinton's watch, but it could help Bush next year.

The median weekly pay of American workers has risen faster than inflation over the past three years, a statement that could not have been made when Jimmy Carter, Reagan, the first President Bush or Clinton was gearing up for a re-election campaign.

The price of houses nationwide has risen 22 percent since 2000. Stocks have fallen sharply over the same span, but most investors made money in the past decade.

The Democratic case against the president revolves around the rising national debt and a severe hiring slump.

Despite three tax cuts that Bush advertised as an economic stimulus and that helped turn a $236 billion surplus in 2000 into a projected $374 billion deficit this year, the economy has lost almost 3 million jobs since he took office.

If the economy continues to improve, Democratic strategists say, their party's nominee will need to emphasize the projected cuts in popular programs such as education, Medicare and Social Security that the deficit could eventually require.

Democrats say they will also remind voters that whatever job gains come in the next year, they are likely to be too small to prevent Bush from being the first president since Herbert Hoover to oversee a decline in employment.

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