Jewish World Review July 29, 2004 / 11 Menachem-Av, 5764

Peter A. Brown

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Note to Prez: Customer's always right | Most Americans, who think about politics only when forced, assume pollsters play fast and loose with numbers to make their candidate look good.

The truth, however, is that the good ones quickly deliver bad news. They earn their keep, not by manipulating public opinion, but by tweaking the campaign's message without revising the candidate's views.

Over the past decades Republicans have been more adept at this than Democrats, in no small part because they are generally more familiar with, and favorable to, the concept of selling to a marketplace.

Yet, this year one might mistake the Democratic ticket as the one composed of smart businessmen. That's because John Kerry and John Edwards seem to understand the guiding axiom of all commerce that the customer - in this case the voter - is always right.

By comparison, President Bush and his minions keep telling skeptical Americans that the economy is better than they think. Ironically, they sound like lawyers (which Kerry and Edwards are) trying to convince a jury that the facts aren't what they seem.

Bush may be right on substance. In fact, by most traditional yardsticks he is certainly correct. The economy is in good shape, and it has steadily improved this year.

But he might want to consider the advice from a Republican pollster - who has never been a White House favorite - that he adjust his style to find a new way to talk about the economy.

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Bush, of all people, should understand. His father made the same mistake in 1992 of trying to convince voters that the economy was getting better. Bush senior was right, too. But economists are not a large part of the electorate. By the time the country came around to realizing things were OK, Bill Clinton was in office. Clinton defeated the elder Bush by playing to the insecurities of Americans worried about their livelihoods in a changing economy.

A dozen years later, there are new and greater insecurities. And, the public's anxiety is showing up in all the wrong places for the president. Bush's ratings on the economy have been falling in almost inverse proportion to the improving economic statistics.

By any analysis, the economy is getting better, and by most criteria is doing pretty well by historical standards. The current unemployment rate is close to what not too long ago was considered full employment, while inflation and interest rates are all within range of historic lows. Yet, millions of Americans are not convinced that happy days are here again. They are worried about rising costs, and foreign competition.

Kerry is both playing to type and taking the obvious course of focusing on the losers in the global economy, and by implication scaring voters into thinking they are next on the chopping block. The president, rather than telling voters their views on the economy are wrong, needs to sell the accurate notion that trade creates more U.S. jobs than it loses. He needs to show how his free-market policies best position America to compete in the 21st century global economy.

Bush needs to talk about how he'll make things better, not that they already are. That's the guts of pollster Bill McInturff's message delivered to Republican governors recently. It would behoove the president's people to listen. McInturff polled for Sen. John McCain against Bush in the 2000 GOP primaries and is not popular at the White House. Because of that history, he pointedly avoided suggesting that Bush should learn this lesson of history.

So, let me do it.

In early 1992, McInturff was among the first within his party to suggest the elder Bush was in trouble because of voter skepticism about the incumbent's commitment to fixing the economy. This Bush is in much better shape than was his dad in 1992, when three-quarters of voters disapproved of the incumbent's handling of the economy. Now, voters are evenly split on that matter. And besides, John Kerry, even on his best day, is no Bill Clinton in the campaigning department.

Perhaps by November more voters will understand the economy is doing pretty well. But until then, Bush needs to drop the economics lesson and explain how cutting taxes and regulation will make things better, regardless of how good he thinks things are today. He needs to offer his plan for small businesses to grow and provide health insurance for workers in contrast to the Kerry big-government approach.

If Bush wants to avoid his father's fate, he can't take the very same path.

Peter A. Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Comment by clicking here.


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06/04/04: A debt unpaid to D-Day warriors
05/25/04: America has a bad attitude!
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05/06/04: Corrupt U.N.? Shine a light
04/28/04: Kerry not weak on defense — just wrong
04/22/04: No attacks in U.S. since 9-11: Why?
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03/16/04: Scalia recusing could give Kerry a bruising
03/04/04: Abortion, gay marriage show hypocrisy
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02/19/04: The question prez, Kerry won't debate
01/21/04: Dems trying oh so hard to keep tired issue alive
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12/23/04: UN proves yet again it's dangerously misguided
11/18/03: U.N. oversight of Internet: Dumb idea
11/11/03: Absent change, GOP trend continues
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09/03/03: Why Bush, Dean will win big in California recall
08/12/03: Hypocrisy from anti-death-penalty crowd
08/05/03: The rule of law or the Golden Rule?
07/22/03: A cautionary tale for those who naively believe that political posturing can override the laws of economics
06/24/03: Let seniors make their own choices
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