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Can 2000 Candidates Deal With a Sliding Economy?

July 11, 1999|David Kusnet | David Kusnet, chief speech writer for President Bill Clinton from 1992-94, is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and the author of "Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties."

WASHINGTON — In 1992, Bill Clinton's chief strategist, James Carville, kept saying, "It's the economy, stupid."

Carville's phrase has served Clinton well. He was elected, in large part, because of Americans' insecurity after the 1990-91 recession. He won reelection and beat back impeachment because voters appreciated the economy's recovery.

But what if, next year, it's the economy, stumbling?

Sure, economic insecurity is far from people's minds and from the public debate. Unemployment and inflation are at record lows, the stock market is at a record high and Clinton and Congress are debating what to do with some $400 billion in unexpected budget surpluses.

The Federal Reserve Board's recent increase in interest rates, however, along with continuing Asian economic troubles and what some call a speculative bubble in stock prices, raise the prospect that the economy will cool some by the time voters focus on the 2000 elections. Few economists forecast an outright recession. But the economy could look more like the anxious upturn that marked much of Clinton's first term: a jobless, then a joyless, then a regressive recovery that improved profit statements for corporate America and increased earnings for the well-to-do but laid off thousands of workers while doing nothing to boost their wages.

Even now, in an economy approaching full employment, anxieties stirred by such inequalities lurk below the surface.

Last year, corporate downsizings caused the largest layoffs since 1993, and an estimated 1 million workers, including many who kept their jobs, found themselves losing their health insurance.

Yes, workers can find new jobs. But it is harder to find secure and good-paying positions, with reliable health coverage. For most workers without college degrees, real wages are just a little above where they were nine years ago at the peak of the last business cycle.

Even before the Fed raised interest rates, economic uncertainties were contributing to an increasingly uneasy public mood, in part reflected in the 51% of likely voters who think the nation is on the wrong track, according to the recent Battleground 2000 survey, conducted by Republican pollster Ed Goeas and Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. These persistent anxieties explain why a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 58% of Americans believe that trade is harmful to their jobs and wages.

So what would it mean for politicians to campaign in a cooling economy and an edgier America?

At first, there would be more policy debates within each party than a reshaping of the battlefield between the parties. Among Republicans, economic anxiety could offer a shot in the arm for fringe candidates already appealing to worry. Conservative Patrick J. Buchanan attacks imports and immigrants. Multimillionaire magazine publisher Steve Forbes calls for flattening the tax code and privatizing parts of Social Security.

Meanwhile, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the front-runner, and Elizabeth H. Dole are emphasizing their personal character, professional resumes and family values, not their economic prescriptions. Such strategies tripped up Republican candidates named George Bush and Bob Dole and could derail the newer versions if economic anxiety returns.

With Democrats, there still won't be the kind of public debate that would have taken place if Vice President Al Gore had been challenged by an economic populist like House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). But there could be an insiders' argument similar to the one that took place in 1996 between populists, such as former Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, and corporatists, such as departing Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin. The issue then was whether to do more to assist downsized workers by investing in retraining and jobs and insisting upon more socially conscious corporate behavior. While Rubin helped convince Clinton not to criticize corporate behavior or boost federal spending, the president did address economic anxieties indirectly, championing an increase in the minimum wage and defending Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and education programs against attacks by the Republican Congress.

This year, the Democratic debate will be even more subdued because there are no discordant voices within the administration, most labor liberals and centrist Democrats are lining up behind the heavily favored Gore, and his only opponent, former Sen. Bill Bradley, is also a free trader and fiscal moderate. In the general election, though, Gore, if nominated, would be well-advised to remember the hard-pressed, hard-working Americans whom Reich called the "anxious class" in the aftermath of the Democrats' defeat in the 1994 elections.

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