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Voters overwhelmingly say the US economy is a major issue in this year's presidential race, and economists agree that its performance is unprecedented. Conventional wisdom would seem to dictate that an incumbent ought to benefit from this combination of the factors, but the electorate appears unwilling to give Democratic candidate Vice President Al Gore all the credit for the past eight years of prosperity.
A recent Gallup poll, for example, showed 74 percent of the American public rate the economy more positively than they did four years ago. But when asked who would do a better job of ensuring that the prosperity continues, Americans see his GOP rival, Texas Governor George W. Bush, equally capable of steering the economy as Gore.
Analysts differ on the reasons for this discrepancy. Some have suggested that Gore has been unable to embrace the positive legacy of the administration whilst simultaneously trying to distance himself from the history of scandal which has tainted it and left Bill Clinton as such an ethically ambiguous figure.
Others point out politicians - especially a deputy like Gore -- can no longer expect automatic credit for prosperity: "As a vice president, Gore wouldn't normally get credit for the economy in any case," said Ron Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland.
But Walters believes there's another factor at work: "A lot of people don't want to give Democrats credit for this economy." Instead, he suggests they see Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan as deserving their gratitude.
Marty Reiser, spokesperson for Citizens for a Sound Economy, echoes Walters. "In general, the American people don't credit government for economic expansion. They credit the new information economy," Reiser said. "The government hasn't made a lot of mistakes, but it doesn't deserve a lot of credit either."
Reiser says the American economy is moving closer to what he calls a "shareholder democracy." Popular understanding of the stock market and the global economy is growing. Voters understand that government policy is not necessarily the most significant factor in determining economic developments.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is a cadre of liberal critics who claim many natural Gore supporters feel left out of the new economy. These critics see as the Clinton/Gore record as double-edged. Prosperity, they say, has left many working-class Americans behind, and distrustful of Gore.
"He has always been a moderate Democrat. To now take on this populist religion adds another element of implausibility to his message." said Joel Blau, a social welfare professor at State University of New York at Stony Brook and author of the book, "Illusions of Prosperity: America's Working Families in an Age of Economic Insecurity."
"He's in a difficult position. If he emphasizes the economy, he emphasizes inequality and highlights the weakness in the Clinton Administration. He can't run on a platform of continuing Clinton policies because it wasn't good for a lot of people. Sure, there's low unemployment, but it hasn't improved wages and inequality continues to grow."
Gore's attempts to emphasize a theme of prosperity for all on the campaign trail -- and his recent attack on Bush as a "class warrior for billionaires" -- may be an attempt to address this audience. His talk of working Americans toiling to pay their mortgage, paying college tuition for their kids and still have something left over for retirement is clearly targeted at some elements of the traditional democrat base -- the less well off, minorities and union workers.
It's a base that Gore may have trouble rallying, especially at this late stage in the campaign.
Polls show 40 percent of union members are planning to vote for Bush. Reiser says that's because the Clinton/Gore Administration was pro-free trade. "That upset a lot of unions. They now feel they don't have to necessarily go Democrat lock, stock and barrel. They feel abandoned."
But Gore's attempt to portray himself as a populist champion of ordinary Americans against special interests may backfire, according to some analysts. Angela Antonelli, director of economic policy at the Heritage Foundation, says this rhetoric "reflects a growing role of government in every aspect of our lives" something she sees as a major turnoff for voters. But Gallup polls show voters -- while indeed suspicious of "big government" - are not necessarily in favor of across the board tax cuts, especially if the alternative is paying down the national debt and shoring up Social Security. In fact, more than 50 percent of Americans want targeted tax cuts for those earning less than $70,000 a year, while only 33 percent favor broad tax cuts, according to Gallup.
Nonetheless, Reiser sees the logic behind Gore's populist, rally-the-base
strategy: "As we move closer to the election, the candidates realize we'll have a lower voter turnout than expected. Gore isn't going after the undecided, he figures they won't vote anyway," he says.
To Chuck Collins, co-director of United for a Fair Economy and co-author of "Economic Apartheid in America: A Primer on Inequality and Insecurity," Gore has to drive home the message in the next few days that he will deliver what his natural supporters want: targeted tax cuts whilst preserving economic prosperity.
"During the (Democratic) convention, Gore talked about working families left behind and that touched people. He left that message and (Ralph) Nader has kept on those themes and gained ground," he said.