In this year's campaign, it's not the economy, stupid

September 19, 2004|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

In 1992, James Carville scrawled the phrase "The economy, stupid," on a white board at Bill Clinton's Little Rock headquarters to remind co-workers what the campaign against George H.W. Bush was about.

Twelve years earlier, Ronald Reagan famously asked, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?," crystallizing concerns about interest rates and gasoline prices in a verbal knockout punch to President Jimmy Carter.

But this year, the economy appears to have lost its traditional power as an overriding campaign issue, despite a generous supply of negative pocketbook news.

Over the last four years, President Bush had the fewest net jobs created of any president since Herbert Hoover. Paychecks are eroding beneath soaring health care, fuel and college tuition costs. Record numbers of Americans can't afford medical insurance, and poverty has been rising for three consecutive years.

Despite all of that, the economy can't seem to get respect.

Instead, the race between President Bush and Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry has been dominated by everything but money matters. The war in Iraq, the larger war on terrorism, the candidates' military records and their character have defined the campaign through the summer conventions and into early fall.

The political power of economic issues has been neutralized, political and economic analysts say, by more fundamental voter concerns, most importantly the post-9/11 war on terrorism, the continuing conflict in Iraq and related developments.

"Unlike 1992, when Clinton ran on the idea of `It's the economy, stupid,' that worked because George Herbert Walker Bush was seen as out of touch," said Zachary White, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of San Francisco. "What's very different now is we see a collapse between foreign and domestic policy. In the famous Reagan question of `Are we better off?' now `better' is equated with `safer.'"

What's more, the economic picture is fuzzy - not as visceral as the gas lines Carter had to confront nor as dramatic as the joblessness the first President Bush struggled with.

Unemployment last month was 5.4 percent, the same rate as in 1996 when Bill Clinton won re-election, although that figure doesn't reflect people who have abandoned fruitless job searches or accepted lower pay. Thousands of Americans have traded jobs on assembly lines for jobs on checkout lines.

Finally, the candidates themselves have been getting more media attention with their comments on the war than economics.

The Republican National Convention showcased the president's response to Sept. 11. If the point out of New York had somehow been missed, Vice President Dick Cheney hammered it home later by warning that if "we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we'll get hit again."

Democrats acknowledge that Kerry has let momentum on the economic issue escape by becoming caught up in the fitness-for-defense debate, especially after his decorated record in Vietnam came under fire.

"The dynamics of a presidential campaign are largely determined by the capabilities of the campaigns themselves and who is successful in getting the electorate to focus on what they want them to focus on," said Joel L. Naroff, chief economist for Commerce Bancorp Inc. in Philadelphia. "It's not like Kerry isn't talking about the economy and the lack of jobs. Why didn't that get traction? That's hard to say."

Like many economists, Naroff said the economy is not so good, but not so bad - hardly the stuff of the indelible political sound bite. But Naroff amplifies a point that Kerry has sought to make: Job creation, by any standard, is historically anemic. Ronald Reagan oversaw greater job growth through two recessions than Bush did through a mild recession.

Related issues

Moreover, Naroff thinks the war on terrorism shouldn't be seen as separate from financial concerns because the nation can't mount a strong defense without a vibrant economy. And in the long term, the economy will depend in no small measure on how the nation's leaders confront structural problems with Medicare and Social Security, as Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has pointed out.

A presidential election and the national economy are undeniably connected, although rarely in a straight line. Even Clinton, whose "economy, stupid" message surfaced in news reports weeks after his nomination, was criticized in 1992 as a provincial leader who focused too much on pocketbook issues.

The breaking point

Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago firm that studies workplace issues, concluded in a recent study that an unemployment rate of 5.5 percent was pivotal in determining presidential elections. More than 70 percent of the time, in 10 of the past 14 presidential races, the incumbent's party remained in power if unemployment averaged 5.5 or less during the three months prior to the election - and lost if it was above 5.5.

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