In next year’s election, will President Bush be the triumphal Ronald Reagan of 1984, or will he suffer the fate of his father, sent packing by voters in 1992? Today, as in 1984 and 1992, the nation’s economy may be emerging from a downturn — or, unlike those years, it might be sinking further into the doldrums. But the current president’s fate depends on a lot more than a rising jobless rate.
When voters went to the polls in 1984, the unemployment rate was 7.4 percent. Americans gave Reagan a landslide re-election victory as he won 49 states out of 50.
When voters went to the polls in 1992, the unemployment rate was 7.3 percent. Americans denied Bush a second term.
What accounts for the difference? Personality, political savvy and the quality of the opponent.
Reagan was ever-optimistic and funny in a self-deprecating way. He faced Democratic candidate Walter Mondale, an earnest but dour opponent who promised to raise taxes as a way of reducing the federal deficit.
LESSONS OF ’92 ELECTION In 1992, President Bush could not get a Democratic-controlled Congress to pass his economic stimulus plan.
The Democrats, deriding his proposal to cut capital gains tax rates as “tax cuts for the wealthy,” saw that it was in their interest to obstruct the president in the hopes of ousting him from the White House. That they did.
It would be futile to predict what the unemployment rate will be when voters cast their ballots in November of 2004, but one safe bet is that the Democrats will blame the current President Bush for unemployment, stagnation and declining household net worth.
Bush argues that a new round of tax cuts will help create jobs. In every speech he gives on the economy, he portrays the tax cut not as an end in itself but as the best means to an end: a job for every one who seeks one.
In the months between now and November of 2004, Democratic leaders in Congress, just as in 1991 and 1992, have no reason to cooperate with Bush. To help their party’s presidential nominee they have every reason to delay or derail the tax cuts.
Bush needs 51 votes in the Senate to enact the tax package and will likely lose a few Republicans, such as Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.
CONSERVATIVE DEMOCRATS That’s why conservative Democrats such as Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska are so important.
Nelson and a couple of other conservative Democrats could supply the votes Bush needs to pass the tax cut plan, if he is willing to pay their price: among other things, federal money to help state governments plug budget gaps.
In a wider sense, conservative Democrats may also be the key to the 2004 election.
Al Gore lost the 2000 election because he could not carry New Hampshire, Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, or Arkansas, states Bill Clinton carried in 1992. Exit polls showed Gore had dire problems with rural and suburban church-going voters, especially in the South.
The divide between those voters and Gore was not the economy, but cultural and social issues such as gun control and abortion.
The Democrats’ hope in 2004 is that their candidate can use the economy to overcome the cultural and social issues that caused grief for Gore.
Democratic strategists are to a large degree economic determinists — they believe the economy can trump other issues. This, they think, was the great lesson of their success with Clinton in 1992.
WHY CLINTON BEAT BUSH Looking back on Clinton’s victory in 1992, Clinton strategist Mandy Grunwald said that the marital infidelity and draft-dodging charges Republicans half-heartedly tried to use against Clinton did not work because in a time of economic distress they were “luxury issues.”
“If you can put food on your table and pay your health care bills and you aren’t worried about whether you have a job, then you have the luxury to think about... whether this guy (Clinton) dodged the draft 23 years ago,” Grunwald told columnists Jack Germond and Jules Witcover after the election. In 1992 voters didn’t have that luxury, she said, and that was why Clinton beat Bush.
The younger Bush, a witness to his father’s defeat as one of his White House operatives, knows first-hand the history of that election.
Bush the elder appeared to have no intuitive feel for voters’ worries and when challenged on the economy, seemed defensive.
“How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives?” asked Marisa Hall, a member of the audience in the second presidential debate in 1992, asked the candidates.
“Well, I think the national debt affects everybody,” Bush replied.
But Hall wasn’t satisfied. “You personally,” she told the president.
Bush seemed at a loss. “I’m not sure I get — help me with the question and I’ll try to answer it.”
“I’ve had friends that have been laid off from jobs,” Hall said. “I know people who cannot afford to pay the mortgage on their homes, their car payment.”
It wasn’t exactly the national debt Hall was getting at — a good listener could have figured out it was the lackluster state of the economy.
A tone-deaf Bush took a self-pitying line in response. “Well, listen, you ought to be in the White House for a day and hear what I hear and see what I see and read the mail I read.”
In the 2004 campaign, here’s what is reasonable to expect from the current president and his strategist Karl Rove:
Bush will avoid self-pity or defensiveness. He’ll play the Reagan of 1984, not the Bush of 1992.
Republicans will try to not make the mistake GOP strategists made in ’92 by pulling their punches when they jabbed at Clinton. In attacking any weakness in the Democratic candidate, Bush and Rove will use full force.
Most important of all, Bush and Rove will not repeat the mortal error that Bush’s father committed in 1991 when he betrayed GOP conservatives and reneged on his “read-my-lips, no-new-taxes” promise.
DEMOCRATS’ STRATEGY For their part, the Democratic contenders argue that Bush cares more about Iraqis than about Americans.
Former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont complained recently that, “We’re going to spend a lot of money in Iraq. ... It’s going to be $200 billion. For $200 billion, we could insure every child under the age of 18 in this country, just like we do in the state of Vermont.”
Another contender, former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois, said, “If we spent $80 billion to kill Saddam Hussein that’s $79 billion too much. I’d rather see that money spent on providing health care for children, universal health care for our country, to build schools and provide quality education, to deal with domestic concerns of the American people. ... Charity begins at home and if we’re going to attend to our priorities we should take care of America first and American children first.”
As for their own economic policy, Democrats voters will decide whether they want a candidate who favors some tax cuts, such Sen. John Edwards, who calls for a $500-per-family tax break, or Sen. John Kerry, who wants to cut taxes on corporate dividends — or a candidate such as Rep. Dick Gephardt, who favors canceling all the tax cuts Congress enacted in 2001 and Bush signed into law.