- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 14, 2004

The Clintonian warning that when it comes to presidential elections “it’s the economy, stupid” actually was a transposition that should have read: “It’s the stupid economy.”

Since 1932 (at least), the re-election hopes of incumbent presidents have hinged largely on something over which they have little or no control — the nation’s economic well-being. A good economy on Election Day is a leg up to another four years in the White House, and one that is not so good is just the opposite. It is that simple in American politics — even during times of war.

Now and then a candidate can blow the advantages of a long period of prosperity during an incumbent administration, as then-Vice President Al Gore managed to do in 2000.

But most of the time voters are willing to forgive any number of other presidential shortcomings or indiscretions as long as they feel safe about the status of their pocketbooks.

That is, of course, what George W. Bush faces as he tries to convince voters he deserves an extended tour in the Oval Office despite an economy that again seems to be slowing and an Iraq situation that seems always going from bad to worse.

The election clearly will be decided on whether Americans believe Mr. Bush’s claimed strengths as a fighter of terrorism override his alleged deficiencies as a fiscal leader; whether the tax cuts he instituted were the lasting antidote for a faltering economy or merely a relatively short-lived shot of feel-good medicine. At the very least, the reductions pumped some blood back into the system when the dot-com vein ruptured.

The chances are good that if voters answer that question negatively and elect John Kerry, they will soon find that he, like Franklin Roosevelt, had no more solutions to the economy than his predecessor did. Jobs, for instance, will still go to the cheapest bidder overseas without a major overhaul of global policies, and that will require some dangerously draconian trade and tariff measures. Have we forgotten the lessons of the Smoot-Hawley Act, which helped trigger the Great Depression?

The Federal Reserve, by raising the interest rate a quarter-point, has come down on the side of those who argue oil prices mainly have caused only a temporary glitch in the economy’s continuing growth mode. But that hasn’t stopped Democrats from pointing out Mr. Bush probably will be the only president since Herbert Hoover to end his first term with fewer jobs than when he began it. They even have instituted something they call a “Hoover meter” on the party’s Web site to measure jobs.

Like most things in American politics, the truth rarely catches up with the myth. Running against Hoover has been at the forefront of Democratic strategy off and on for more than 70 years, so why should it change now? Never mind that FDR’s New Deal programs failed to break the grip of the Depression. World War II finally returned the country to prosperity. Roosevelt was first re-elected on the perception he cared more than Hoover, a doubtful conclusion. But that same illusion elected Mr. Clinton and defeated Mr. Bush’s father.

There are those who believe Richard Nixon might have survived Watergate had the economy been better, and that Thomas Dewey probably would have won the 1948 election had not the country still been in the throes of a new postwar prosperity.

Have Mr. Bush’s chances been hurt by the latest job reports? There seems little doubt a stronger recovery would have gone a long way in improving his standing in the Rust Belt battleground states. On the other hand, Mr. Kerry has failed to propose any real solutions other than changes in the tax law that now encourages the exporting of jobs to cheaper overseas markets. He may not need to. This election most likely will rise and fall on Mr. Bush himself, with Mr. Kerry incidental to the referendum on the incumbent’s performance.

The truth is, an economy the size of America’s is pretty much unmanageable by anyone. All any president can do is establish a positive atmosphere, use the bully pulpit and hope for the best. A perception of strength is a necessary quality. Jimmy Carter’s talk of malaise and his vacillation about remedies ended his presidency. An upbeat presentation centering on leadership appears to be exactly Mr. Bush’s strategy. At this stage, it is all up to the stupid economy.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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