The Economy -- On the Campaign Trail

Dec. 21, 2004
Slipping in the polls, Bush needs to regain momentum.

He was the governor of a Southern state before he ran for President. In his final term in office his state ranked almost dead last in all important economic and social indicators: poverty, health, and education. In particular:

  • This state was 50th in the proportion of children covered by health care.
  • It was 45th out of 50 in terms of total health-care coverage.
  • Only 4.5% of its residents had advanced degrees, the lowest of any state in the nation.
  • The percentage of high school dropouts was the fourth highest in the nation.
  • The state was near the bottom in poverty, ranking 49th out of 50 in per-capita income.
  • 19.1% of the population lived in poverty, and the poverty rate among blacks was the third highest in the country.
By now you probably have figured out that I am talking about none other than Bill Clinton, governor of Arkansas in 1992. Those are the sorry statistics for his state. In view of these data, it is ironic for Democrats to raise the banner of bad government in Texas under George W. Bush. Where were the heavy maulers when Clinton was running in 1992? Maybe it doesn't do much good to exhume those statistics, considering that Al Gore never was a governor, but it seems logical that the next time some Democratic heavyweight starts caterwauling about what a terrible job George W. has done in Texas, it wouldn't hurt to look at the Clinton record. It is also worth remembering that Clinton was defeated for reelection after his first term as governor for a very simple reason: He raised taxes. All right, Clinton raised taxes shortly after he became President and won reelection. But not so fast. Recall how unpopular Clinton was in 1994, and how that permitted the Republicans to gain control of the House and retain control through the next two elections. This marks the first time the Republicans have been the majority party in the House for more than one consecutive term since the 1920s. So maybe those tax hikes weren't quite as popular as the Clinton/Gore team thinks they were. Along these lines, one useful campaign strategy for the Republicans would be to stress that Al Gore, if elected, will actually raise taxes for most Americans. Oh sure, he will provide tax credits and reductions to people who don't pay any taxes anyhow, but the solid middle class, whose support he needs to win the election, will find themselves continuing to pay a higher proportion of their income in taxes. The Democrats can call that anything they want. I call it a tax increase. The Bush campaign is understandably spooked about beating up on Clinton, because whenever the Republicans say nasty things about him, his ratings go up and Republican ratings go down. So enough already. Forget the scandals. Most swing voters will base their choice on the factors that have always been important. In wartime, they want the fighting to end (1952, 1968). In peacetime, they want their aftertax income to rise. Right now, unemployment and inflation are not major concerns, but higher taxes are still an important issue. It seems to me, then, that while Bush and Cheney continue to take the high road, the lower-level operatives need to get in there and stress that Bush's record as governor was actually much better than Clinton's, and that Bush will cut middle-income taxes, while Gore, in spite of marginal nibbling at the codes, will actually raise them. As expected, Bush has slipped behind in all the polls, and the economy is clearly strong enough that a slight slowdown in the growth rate won't materially affect voter preference. I don't expect an "October surprise," but if Clinton does manage to pull one off, it will only increase the Democratic margin. The Bush team needs to stress the benefits of a Republican fiscal policy for the average middle-income voter.

Michael K. Evans is president of the Evans Group and professor of economics at the Kellogg School of Business, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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