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For 'If It Ain't Broke . . . ' Crowd, Bush Has Put Himself in Difficult Fix

When prosperity has spread to the point that cut-rate gas stations in a town as gritty as Pontiac, Mich., offer upscale coffee drinks, you know it's a tough year to argue for change.

September 11, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday

NAPERVILLE, ILL. — George W. Bush isn't running against just Al Gore. Bush is also running against Eddie Bauer. And Ann Taylor. And, as it turns out, Starvin' Marvin.

Bush, in other words, is finally facing the full weight of trying to oust the party in the White House at a time when pockets are full and stores are crowded.

Bush's visit to this affluent Chicago suburb for a Labor Day parade last week gave him an up-close look at the problem. As Bush marched down the stylish main street, Kim Matuck, a sales representative, was explaining why she planned to vote for Gore. She gestured toward the Starbucks and Eddie Bauer and Ann Taylor stores along the route; none of them were there eight years ago when Bill Clinton and Gore took office. Matuck husband's business, she said, was thriving. Low interest rates had allowed them to trade up to a bigger home. She hears Bush talk about the need for a "fresh start" in America and she wonders what exactly is the problem he's aiming to fix.

"I like what we've had the last eight years, and I just am very worried about change," she says. "Why go in a different direction when things are going as well as they are?"

It's not just cul-de-sac families in suburbs like this who are doing well enough to ask that question. In a new book, the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, reports that after years of stagnation, incomes grew sharply for families at all income levels from 1995 to 1998. It also found that wages, after declining in inflation-adjusted terms for most workers during the 1980s and early 1990s, not only spiked from 1995 to 1998 but increased more for low- than high-income workers.

Which probably helps explain the news at Starvin' Marvin, a discount gas station along the highway in Pontiac, Mich., that Bush's motorcade barreled past en route to a rally last week. Out in front, Marvin has posted a big sign that reads: "We now offer cappuccino."

When prosperity has spread to the point that cut-rate gas stations in a town as gritty as Pontiac offer upscale coffee drinks, you know it's a tough year to argue for change.

All of this is worth remembering as the long knives in Washington are unsheathed against Bush and his campaign staff. As Gore has narrowly passed Bush in most of the latest national surveys, the same GOP establishment that anointed the Texas governor last year is bemoaning him now. Bush has made his share of mistakes, especially recently. But overall, he's run an effective and sophisticated campaign. If anything, Bush has been more competitive than might be expected in an economy this strong. Bush is just learning how hard it is to beat the incumbent party when virtually every economic and social trend is pointing in the right direction.

Prosperity hampers Bush in at least two distinct respects. Matuck embodies the most obvious challenge: When times are good, there's less of a demand for change. Whether voters credit Clinton and Gore for the strong economy, many are reluctant to gamble the good times by shifting direction. Craig Barenbrugge, a mortgage banker standing near Matuck at the Labor Day parade, typifies that group. "Without doing any great research on either of the candidates," he says, "my initial reaction is to stick with the status quo." More subtly, prosperity hurts Bush by shrinking the demand for tax cuts--the centerpiece of his domestic agenda. With voters feeling less economically squeezed, polls consistently show that the vast majority would rather spend the federal surplus on Medicare, Social Security and paying down the national debt than the across-the-board tax cut Bush is touting.

Compounding Bush's problem, prosperity has already allowed Washington to ease whatever pressure might have developed for a tax cut. In his stump speech, Bush belittles Gore's promise of a targeted tax cut by implying that the administration had failed to deliver on its 1992 pledge to provide relief to the middle class. "Eight years ago, you said you were going to give the middle class a tax cut, and you're having to say it again," Bush thunders.

But in the 1997 balanced-budget deal, Clinton and the GOP Congress agreed on a significant middle-class tax cut centered on a $500 per child tax credit. As a result, the Congressional Budget Office calculates that all but the most affluent families are now paying a smaller share of their income in federal income taxes than when Clinton took office. Indeed, the conservative Tax Foundation recently calculated that the 1997 law "reduced federal . . . income taxes on the median family so dramatically that federal income taxes as a percentage of total income were about the same in 1998 as they were in 1955."

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