WASHINGTON — Last month's stock market crisis created a consensus in Washington on two points. First, the federal budget deficit will now become the central issue of the 1988 presidential campaign. According to pollster Geoffrey Garin, the financial crisis "becomes a defining issue for 1988, because the potential for tragedy, which was abstract a month or two ago, has now become real."
Second, the economic issue is bound to boost the Democrats' chances of turning the Republicans out of the White House. "Any uncertainty . . . in the economy gives the Democrats an opportunity to go out and really try to exploit the weaknesses in the Reagan program," said Republican political consultant Edward J. Rollins. "The bottom line is that it's got to hurt us."
In situations where the experts agree, it is wise to ask, "What do they know?" In this case, they may not know very much.
Take the argument that economic uncertainty has to hurt Republicans because they are the "in" party. Maybe not. In an uncertain economic environment, voters usually want change, and that is what the "out" party is in a good position to offer. But the point is not likely to be lost on the "in" party. If Reaganomics looks as if it is headed for a shipwreck, the result may be to undermine George Bush's claim on the GOP nomination. Because Bush is Ronald Reagan's vice president, there is an unavoidable correlation between Reagan's support and Bush's support. Where Reagan is strong, Bush is strong (New Hampshire). Where Reagan is weak, Bush is weak (Iowa). If economic discontent spreads, then the Republican race will look more like Iowa and less like New Hampshire--in other words, bad for Bush.
The candidate best positioned to take advantage of Bush's weakness is Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.). After all, the deficit is Dole's issue. He advertises himself as a candidate who is tough and competent, who knows how to work with Congress and get things done. Recently, Dole has taken up a new theme--compassion for the disabled and disadvantaged. During the debate among the Republican candidates on Wednesday in Houston, Dole argued that the Republican Party has to show it is a "caring party" sensitive to the needs of the poor, minorities, the disabled and "those who are left behind."
Dole was deliberately venturing into Democratic territory to stake a claim on the "fairness issue." (He said he would hang a portrait of Harry S. Truman in the Cabinet Room.) In a time of economic uncertainty, voters are likely to want a candidate who offers economic security, and Dole clearly intends to challenge the Democrats' monopoly of that theme.
Polls reveal that Dole has more appeal than any other Republican to Democrats and Independents. A Dole nomination means Republicans would be going with the candidate who has the best chance of winning in November. In fact, Dole is probably the only Republican who has a chance of winning in November.
The Democrats simply do not have a candidate with Dole's stature. Moreover, an economic downturn is likely to throw the Democratic race into confusion. The 1988 race is the first in memory in which there is no candidate who epitomizes the "old politics" values of the Democratic Party--sharing, family, compassion, mutuality and the promise to protect people against economic adversity.
There is no Hubert H. Humphrey, no Edmund S. Muskie, no Henry M. Jackson, no Edward M. Kennedy, no Walter F. Mondale, no Mario M. Cuomo. Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois comes closest to those values, but even he voted for a balanced budget amendment. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri can claim experience as a leader in the House but he is no match for Dole in legislative stature. Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis has done a good job managing prosperity, not adversity, in his state.
The one candidate positioned to take advantage of an economic downturn is Jesse Jackson. Not only is he the least electable Democrat, but the more votes Jackson gets, the harder it is for any other Democrat to win a majority. The result is likely to be a lot of unseemly wheeling and dealing for the nomination, including possibly a poisonous deal with Jackson or an embarrassing appeal to a non-candidate like Cuomo to come in and save the party.
So the experts are right when they argue that, all other things being equal, a bad economy will help the Democrats. The problem is that all things are never equal.
As for the argument that the stock market crisis makes the deficit the principal issue of the 1988 campaign, the answer is, look again. The candidates in both parties are doing everything they can to avoid a serious debate on the deficit.