- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 20, 2004

When it comes to competing for America’s electoral appetites, political parties are like Burger King and McDonald’s. They occasionally roll out new programmatic menus, but remain focused on a few popular staples. Voters perennially put managing the economy at the top of their bill of fare. It’s the Big Mac of public policy in the minds of most Americans — and the political parties vying for their affections.

Despite a rocky couple of years, recent government economic reports are rosy. First-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) grew at a 4.2 percent annual rate, creating more than 1 million jobs in less than a year. Economic growth over the last three quarters has been the fastest in nearly 20 years. Based on this track record, President Bush has an opportunity to win voter trust for his party’s management of the economy — an honor John Kerry is not going to give away easily.

As a person who grew up politically in the 1980s, I always assumed the Republican Party was the permanent favorite when it came to voter trust on economic matters — because throughout that decade it was. Certain economic principles were cloned into my ideological DNA. Tax cuts, free trade and deregulation were a kind of policy “triple helix” that, if spliced together, created economic prosperity.

Yet viewed in a broader historical context (as the graph demonstrates), my assumptions were wrong. For nearly 50 years before Ronald Reagan became president, Americans trusted the Democratic Party more when it came to delivering prosperity. Moreover, while Republicans overtook the Democrats for the first time in terms of economic management during the 1980s, for the past decade, tracking which party holds the advantage looks a lot like a rugby scrum, with neither side sustaining a clear advantage.

History suggests that grabbing the hearts and minds of Americans has more to do with painting a persuasive picture of the path to prosperity than getting down in the weeds of specific policy proposals. Voters are less interested in the condiments of economic tinkering than a full menu of hope and prosperity.

“After the stock market collapse and Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt convinced voters the Democratic Party and its New Deal programs were the strongest engines to pull America’s economic train,” former House Republican member Vin Weber told me. “For the next 40 years, Democrats successfully persuaded voters they were best suited to manage the economy, according to polling data. This all came to an end in the late 1970s, putting the economy on the brink of collapse. When it came to preaching the politics of prosperity, the Democrats and Jimmy Carter ran out of gas — literally.”

In 1979 and 1980 the future looked bleak, and none of the government’s actions seemed to work. Mr. Reagan talked about the economics of prosperity again and ignited people’s imaginations.

“Reagan spoke the language of growth and economic prosperity,” Mr. Weber said. “He didn’t worry that much about deficits or micromanaging the economy. He focused on growth and voters responded.”

Some, like Mr. Weber, argue Republicans lost Mr. Reagan’s vision for the economics of prosperity with the so-called 1990 budget deal. During those days, the White House was overly dominated by what former House Speaker Newt Gingrich used tocall budgetary “technocratic nihilists,” like then-Office of Management and Budget Director Richard Darman, who replaced the language of growth with green-eyeshade obsessions about the size of the deficit.

The recent spurt in economic activity may help convince new generations of voters that growth and prosperity are more linked to the “opportunity, ownership and responsibility society” rhetoric Mr. Bush talks about than a new menu of government programs and investments proffered by Mr. Kerry. Can Republican prosperity through growth trump Democrats’ wealth creation through government programs? It’s the Big Mac decision of 2004.

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