Fretting Over the Economy

Voter anxiety is rising. Is it because of snipers, Iraq, the war on terrorism? No, it's something else, stupid.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., got it right when he said, "I think the American people fully appreciate the magnitude of the economic problems we are facing." When President Bush took office in January 2001, 82 percent of Americans thought the economy was in good shape, according to a Gallup Poll. At the end of 2001, only 50 percent thought economic conditions were good.

In late September, that number was slightly higher, 54 percent. But as of late October, just 41 percent of Americans felt positive about the nation's economy—a 13-point drop in just one month. For the first time since Bush took office, fewer than half of Americans say the economy is in good shape.

The public mood is shifting rapidly in a direction that cannot be good for the president's party. In last week's Time/CNN poll, when people were asked to choose the most important issue in their vote, the economy, at 41 percent, overshadowed everything else, including the war on terrorism (23 percent) and Iraq (9 percent). Altogether, twice as many voters cited domestic issues as foreign policy issues.

Here's another bad sign for the GOP: The proportion of Americans who say the country is heading in the right direction has dropped to 49 percent, the first time it's been below 50 percent since 1994. In the past, that number has proved to be a pretty good indicator of election outcomes.

Here are some years when that number was over 60 percent: 1984, 1988, 1996, and 1998—all good years for the party then in control of the White House. That number was under 50 in 1980, 1982, 1992, and 1994—all bad years for the party in the White House.

Uh-oh, is George W. Bush turning into his father? In some ways, yes. In 1992, 68 percent of Americans said they thought President George H.W. Bush was not spending enough time dealing with domestic problems. Now, 61 percent say the same thing about his son.

But in another way, the Bushes are not alike. In 1992, a year after the Persian Gulf War, 50 percent of Americans said they thought then-President Bush was spending too much time on foreign policy. Only 28 percent say the same thing now about his son. September 11 made a difference. Americans don't fault the current president for spending a lot of time on world affairs. They just wish he'd spend more time on the economy.

The question of the moment, of course, is whether all this economic anxiety will pay off for Democrats at the polls. It ought to. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., framed the issue in the time-honored way when he said, "I think everybody today ought to ask themselves a simple question: Are you better off than you were two years ago?"

Among all registered voters in the Gallup Poll, Democrats have a 9-point edge in the nationwide congressional vote, 50 percent to 41 percent. But among those most likely to vote, the Democratic lead shrinks to just 3 points, 49 percent to 46 percent. Republican-leaning voters appear to be more motivated. And in a midterm election, motivation and turnout are everything.

What do Republicans have to motivate their voters? President Bush. What do Democrats have? The economy. Is that enough for the Democrats? Maybe not, because Democrats still have two problems. One is their message. It's not clear what Democrats are proposing to do about the economy. It's pretty clear what many Democrats would like to do: Repeal the tax cut. But they can't say that, because Republicans have a time-tested response. President Reagan first used it in 1985: "I have only one thing to say to the tax increasers. Go ahead. Make my day."

Do Democrats have a Plan B? On October 10, Daschle described "a very overt plan" to deal with the economy: "First, pass unemployment compensation [extension legislation].... Second, pass financial assistance to the states.... Third, let's have an economic summit.... And finally, if I were the president, I would ... find some new advisers." Not a lot there for Democrats to rally 'round.

Democrats have another problem—the messenger. Elections usually revolve around a personality. In 1994, the mood was anti-President Clinton. In 1998, it was pro-Clinton (and anti-Newt Gingrich, then speaker of the House).

Do Democrats have a defining personality to rally 'round? Gephardt and Daschle are moderately popular. But a lot of voters don't know who they are. Voters certainly know former Vice President Gore. But Gore, like Clinton, evokes a sharply divided reaction.

Bush's popularity remains high. That is why Republicans are determined to have Bush define this election. Is there a risk that, by going out on the campaign trail, Bush will spur more Democrats than Republicans to vote? Not really, because Democrats are split over him.

So is there any reason to believe economic discontent will deliver for the Democrats next week? Only one: It always has in the past for the party out of power—even if that party doesn't have a message or a messenger.