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Jewish World Review Oct. 28, 2004 / 13 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765

George Will

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More smoke than ire | And silence, like a poultice, comes

To heal the blows of sound.

— Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

The blows will soon end and silence will descend as voters wield their mighty power to decide. Regarding domestic conditions, the campaign has taken the country's temperature and found it less fevered than the political class's rhetoric.

John Kerry's campaign shows that liberalism remains merely reactive, and reconciled to many of conservatism's triumphs. Kerry complains about No Child Left Behind and the USA Patriot Act but does not call for repealing either. For all of Kerry's histrionic sorrows about "the rich" being too laxly taxed, his proposal to raise the top income tax rate from 35 percent to 39.6 percent accepts Ronald Reagan's revolution in lowering the rate from 70 percent. And Kerry has not proposed even a mild modification of modern conservatism's largest legislative achievement, the 1996 welfare reform that repealed the 1935 Social Security Act's lifetime entitlement to welfare.

Every four years the party out of power unleashes an epidemic of economic illiteracy, hoping to further lower the nation's already low pain threshold. During the spring's South Carolina primary, Democratic presidential candidates, oblivious to cognitive dissonance, lamented the perils of free trade — while proximate to the BMW, Michelin and Fuji plants.

Despite Kerry's reiteration that George Bush's presidency is the first since Herbert Hoover's to coincide with a net job loss, the public seems, unsurprisingly, unaroused. The unemployment rate (5.4 percent) is what it was when President Bill Clinton coasted to reelection in 1996. And the economy's growth rate over the past four quarters (4.9 percent) is higher than the rate over the year before the 1996 election (4.0 percent). Kerry's excoriation of Bush over budget deficits is blunted by the fact that while the government was running deficits in 47 of the past 55 years, gross domestic product has grown almost sevenfold and 79 million jobs have been created.

Liberals are perpetually puzzled that Americans are not indignant about facts like this: In the past 30 years, the percentage of national income taken by the richest 5 percent of households rose from 16.6 to 21.4. Liberalism's constant problem is that Americans are aspirational, not envious.

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Twenty-five years ago, during the 1979-80 oil trauma, when the price of oil reached $35 a barrel (in today's dollars, $81), that pushed the Carter presidency to the precipice that Ronald Reagan pushed it over. This year the price of a barrel of oil topped $55 without noticeable political consequences. Because of changes forced by earlier oil shocks — automobiles, houses and businesses have become more energy-efficient — energy costs are only 3 percent of the average household budget, half of what they were 25 years ago.

Economic conditions have lost some of their political saliency because people understand that presidents have precious little control over those conditions — and that better government policies, especially the Federal Reserve's monetary policy, and better business practices (inventory control, etc.) have made business cycles less menacing. In the 50 years before the end of World War II, contractions were frequent and ferocious enough to fray the social fabric. There were three contractions of 5 percent of GDP, two of 10 percent and two of almost 15 percent. Since 1947 the most severe, that of 1982, was just 1.9 percent. Democrats' unavailing attempts to inflame economic hypochondria founder on a fact that John Makin of the American Enterprise Institute notes:

"By Election Day 22 years (264 months) will have passed since November 1982, and during that time the economy has been in recession just 14 months — a mere 5 percent of the time. From the end of World War II through 1982, the economy was in recession more than four times as frequently (22.4 percent of the time)."

The health crisis of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, 80, comes at the end of a campaign in which the issue of judicial nominations has not received an emphasis commensurate with its importance. Eight of the Supreme Court's nine members are over 65 (Clarence Thomas is just 56); the court's average age is over 70. With three Kerry nominees, the court might constitutionalize, and thereby nationalize, same-sex marriage.

Of course anxiety about the waxing role of courts in the governance of this democracy, and economic discontents, can, in the mysterious osmosis by which this continental nation makes up its mind, decide a close election. As was supposedly said by a foreign observer of American behavior (Joaquin Andujar, former pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals): "There is one word in America that says it all: you never know."

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