Looking for Leaders

With less than a month to go before the mid-term elections voters have told the pollsters they want our elected leaders, particularly President Bush, to pay more attention to the economy. They have a point. The stock market continues to fall – now having lost $7.5 trillion in paper wealth. Unemployment has risen, corporate profits have dropped and consumer confidence looks shaky. Only 40 percent of Americans now see the economy as “good,” down from 85 percent just two years ago. In fact, 56 percent now say the economy is in bad shape – the lowest rating since 1993. Less than 15 percent of Americans believe the economy is getting better and 39 percent believe the economy is getting worse.

Historically, numbers like this would make it a bad time to be an incumbent. Yet, when you scan the current political landscape, this looks like an excellent year to run as an incumbent. In the race for control of the House of Representatives, very few incumbents look vulnerable, unless re-districting has forced them to face another incumbent. In the Senate, probably only three incumbents, two of them Democrats, face imminent danger.

Republican Senator Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas faces a tough battle against Mark Pryor, but the economy has little to do with it. Pryor is the son of an Arkansas legend and a strong candidate in his own right and Senator Hutchinson’s troubles have resulted from a messy divorce, not a falling Dow. Democratic Senator Jeanne Carnahan of Missouri was appointed to her post after her husband won a race right after he died in a plane crash. Senator Carnahan had no previous political experience and hasn’t really distinguished herself one way or another, so she faces a tight race against former U.S. Representative Jim Talent. In Minnesota, the most liberal member of the Senate, Paul Wellstone, has broken a term-limit pledge and must defend his big (big) government record against a mainstream Republican candidate, Norm Coleman. Other races could tighten, but they haven’t yet.

What gives? Political apologists for the Democratic Party claim President Bush has pushed the economy off the front pages with talk of war with Iraq. Otherwise, they claim, the Democrat party would stand to make huge gains in the mid-term elections. The polling data does not support that view. According to a new CBS/New York Times poll, 70 percent of voters say they want to hear what candidates have to say about the economy, compared to just 17 percent who say they want to hear the candidates position on Iraq. Sixty four percent of voters don’t believe the president is paying as much attention as he can to the economy – so if he thought president Bush was going to change the subject, it doesn’t look like he succeeded.

The reason it doesn’t look like either Republicans or Democrats are going to make significant gains in this election has little or nothing to do with Iraq. Neither party has presented a consistent, compelling message on the economy and the voters know it.

Al Gore presents the most startling example of a politician offering transparently meaningless rhetoric. Last week, at the Brookings Institution, Gore suggested, “like a lost driver who won’t stop for directions, the president clutches his old plan and continues racing in the wrong direction, farther and farther into the economic wilderness, with the fate of nearly 300 million Americans in tow.” He declared, “If the president does not propose action to fix the economy before the election … a global recession or worse could have already taken hold.”

OK, Al, you have our attention. What’s your plan? Gore called for a bipartisan meeting at the White House. He suggested the firing of un-named economic advisors. He would not say whether the Bush tax cut should be repealed, modified, or made permanent. He did, however, point out, “it takes more than words to restore confidence in our economy. It takes action.” Wow!

In fairness to Gore, few leading Democrats are willing to offer a specific, alternative economic plan. And they are paying an enormous political price for their timidity. Senator Daschle, Senator Kerrey, Senator Clinton, Senator Edwards, Representative Gephardt – not one of them will state their position on whether the Bush tax cut should be repealed. And voters have responded – if you can’t take a position on the most basic and central fiscal issue of the day, you don’t have the answer to our economic problems. There will be no rush towards Democrats this November.

Republicans have made their own economic mistakes. Most notably, they have spent way too much money. Non-defense government spending has grown faster than at any time since the Great Society over the past four years, and Republicans deserve, and get, some of the blame. But, politically more difficult for Republicans is that their own spending binge has made it more difficult to explain how we can afford to extend the Bush tax cuts. Without specifics, the effort to extend the tax cut isn’t credible.

A decade ago, a little known governor of Arkansas named Bill Clinton offered a specific economic plan called, “Putting People First.” It included the largest tax increase in history and a massive increase in government spending. (It also promised a middle class tax cut.) The lesson is that in the middle of a recession Clinton put forth a specific plan. Politicians in both parties might learn from that – be specific and credible and bold.

And, by the way, after he won office and broke his promise on middle class tax cuts, Clinton’s party lost control of the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years. They haven’t won it back since.