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Jewish World Review Oct. 31, 2002 / 26 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Bill Schneider

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Can a party without a message or a messenger still win? | Voter anxiety is rising. Is it snipers? Iraq? The war on terrorism? No. It's something else, stupid.

Senate majority leader Tom Daschle got it right when he said last week, "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 the Gallup poll. At the end of 2001, the country was in a recession. Only 50 percent thought economic conditions were good.

A month ago, that number had gotten slightly better -- 54 percent. But as of late October, just 41 percent of Americans felt positive about the nation's economy -- down 13 points in one month. For the first time since President Bush took office, fewer than half of Americans say the economy is good. In fact, the number who feel that way has fallen by half (82 to 41 percent) since Bush became President.

The public mood is shifting rapidly, in a direction that cannot be good for the President's party. In last week's Time Magazine-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 cite domestic issues as foreign policy issues.

Here's another bad sign for the GOP: the number of Americans who say things are going well in the country has dropped to 49 percent, the first time it's been below 50 percent since 1994. That number is a pretty good indicator of election outcomes.

Here are some years when that number has been over 60: 1984, 1988, 1996 and 1998. All good years for the President's party. Now here are some years when that number has been under 50: 1980, 1982, 1992 and 1994. All bad years for the President's party.

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

But in another way, they're not alike. In 1992, a year after the 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 this President Bush 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 next week. It ought to. House minority leader Dick Gephardt framed the issue in the time-honored way last week, when he said, "I think everybody ought to ask themselves a simple question: are you better off than you were two years ago?''

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

What do Republicans have to motivate them? Two words: President Bush. What do Democrats have? Two different words: the economy. Is that enough?

Maybe not. 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 Oct. 10, Daschle described "a very overt plan'' to deal with the economy, one with "at least four parts'': "First, pass unemployment compensation . . . Second, pass financial assitance to the states . . . Third, let's have an economic summit . . . and finally, if I were the President, I would clean house . . find some new advisers.'' Not a lot there for Democrats to rally around.

Democrats have another problem -- the messenger. Elections, even midterm elections, usually revolve around a personality. In 1994, it was anti-Clinton. In 1998, it was pro-Clinton (and anti-Gingrich).

Do Democrats have a defining personality they can rally around? Both Gephardt and Daschle are regarded with moderate faborability by the voters. But a lot of voters don't know them. They certainly know Gore. But Gore, like Clinton, evokes a sharply divided reaction.

President Bush's favorability ratings remain sky high. Which is why Republicans are determined to have Bush define this election. Is there a risk that, by going out on the campaign trail, President Bush will drive out a heavy Democratic vote? Not really. Because Democrats are split over Bush. As many Democrats like the President as dislike him.

So it's possible that economic discontent will not deliver for Democrats next week. Is there any reason to believe it will? 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.

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10/24/02: Fright Night may come twice this year!
09/24/02: The politically loaded question: "Why now?''
09/19/02: Pundits in the crosswinds
09/10/02: Has Bush lost his momentum?
09/04/02: Bush's European problem
08/13/02: Overdosing on prescription drug promises
08/06/02: The Dems' secret weapon
08/01/02: Time for prez to let Cheney go
07/30/02: GOPers, feeling scared, get realistic
07/18/02: Soccer Moms, say hello to NASCAR Dads
07/11/02: Israel via Alabama
06/20/02: Does the solution fit the problem?
06/13/02: Triggering unintended consequences
06/11/02: Democracy won, the president is saying to our enemies. You got a problem with that?
06/06/02: White House warnings were effective tactical move
05/23/02: Giving the Dems an education on education
05/16/02: Power to the swing voters
04/23/02: The secret formula
04/09/02: Politics Remain Stalemated
03/31/02: Values and gas mileage?
03/25/02: Truly oppressed minorities
03/14/02: Reciprocal hostility
03/07/02: Bush's prudence
02/28/02: Is the 'clash of civilizations' becoming a political reality?
02/28/02: 'Cowboy' or not, Bush has the 'axis of evil' running scared
02/20/02: Could it be that the era of Big Government really is over?
01/31/02: 'Daddy issues' grab center stage
01/15/02: And, they're off
01/09/02: Three 'War Stars' are born
01/04/02: California cluelessness?
12/17/01: Congress' life or death issue
11/27/01: Our reinvigorated spendthrift Congress
11/27/01: Out of War, Peace?
11/14/01: The other war --- the one for public opinion
11/09/01: The mayor of New Yawk and the King of the World
11/07/01: An insurance policy on America
11/02/01: A nation of defiant optimists
10/30/01: Has Bush has flip-flopped on 'nation-building'?
10/23/01: The new political world
10/16/01: The return of big government
10/08/01: On political war
10/01/01: The "born-again" president
09/25/01: Making America squirm
09/14/01: The American spirit will not wane
09/10/01: What Dubya knows about the budget
08/13/01: Japan becomes the latest country to see its politics become personalized
08/09/01: Bush backers out to remake prez yet again
07/30/01: Will the GOP's mandate of 1994 finally runs out?
07/23/01: Both political parties are full of ....
07/16/01: Empowered moderate Republicans
07/09/01: As goes New Jersey, so goes the nation?
07/02/01: Dubya: Like father, like son?
06/15/01: The new soccer moms
06/05/01: Deals or deadlock?
05/29/01: The War Between the States is heating up again
05/21/01: The answer is men
05/10/01: Bush v. Carter?


© 2002, William Schneider