Republicans are sanguine and Democrats are frustrated going into
the midterm elections, now just three weeks away. Detailed analyses by
political professionals generally show Republicans keeping control of the
House of Representatives and having a good shot at regaining control of the
Senate, as well.
The great unknown factor is how the economy will play.
Historically, pocketbook issues dominate when people enter the voting booth.
With the economy showing no signs of sustained growth and the stock market
in the dumps, there is still a chance that voters will turn on
Republicans -- as the party in power -- and blame them for the lost jobs,
income and wealth they are suffering.
A number of new polls are consistent in showing that Americans
are very apprehensive about economic conditions and dissatisfied with the
Bush administration's lack of concern.
On Oct. 11, the University of Michigan reported that its index
consumer sentiment has fallen to the lowest level since 1993. It is now even
below the level recorded after the terrorist attacks of 9-11.
Also on Oct.11, Ipsos-Reid released its latest index of consumer
attitudes and spending by households. It shows that the fall in the stock
market is not just affecting people's expectations, but their current
spending, as well.
On Oct. 10, Fox News released a poll showing that 45 percent of
people rate the economy and jobs as their highest concern. Among voters, 30
percent said it would be the most important issue in deciding their votes.
The next highest issues were terrorism and education, which were tied at 12
Also that day, the Pew Research Center released a poll
confirming the predominance of economic issues. Fifty-five percent of people
now want more discussion of economic issues, up from 20 percent in June. The
percentage of Americans saying Republicans are best able to handle economic
issues has fallen to 37 percent from 45 percent in January, whereas the
percentage saying that Democrats will do better has risen to 41 percent from
Under ordinary circumstances, one would expect Republicans to be
in trouble, given such numbers. But so far, they are not. Democrats believe
that it is because Republicans have successfully diverted attention away
from the economy, toward Iraq and terrorism. Indeed, some on the left
believe that President Bush's heavy emphasis on the latter is little more
than a political ploy to help his party.
Nonpartisan analysts, however, point the finger at the total
lack of a Democratic agenda on the economy. As political analyst Charlie
Cook puts it, "The problem for Democrats is that they have sat back and
waited for economic woes and statistics to beat Republicans -- and have yet
to articulate even an anemic message on the issue."
Michael Cramer, the liberal half of CNBC's "Kudlow & Cramer,"
complains that Republican economic failures should be the No. 1 issue for
every Democrat running for office in America. "But no, the Democratic
blockheads remain silent, even as their constituents feel Republican-induced
pain every day," he says.
Even prominent Democrats share this view. Last week, The Hill
newspaper quoted Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., as saying: "Our problem is the
Democrats whine and whine. Republicans say the trouble is spending. We say
the reason for the trouble is 'we don't know.'"
Hollings himself said the problem is "the tax cuts." Presumably,
he would repeal last year's tax cut if he could, even though it would
constitute a major tax increase for many Americans over what they would pay
under current law. What conceivable good this would do is a mystery. As
David Broder of The Washington Post notes, all reputable economists favor
budget deficits in a soft economy.
In an editorial on Oct. 5, the Post did a better job than most
Republicans of refuting Hollings and his ilk. "President Bush's main
economic policy -- the large tax cut of last year -- was not responsible for
any of the current damage," it opined. "Indeed, given the twin shocks of
9-11 and the post-Enron stock market decline, the short-term stimulus
created by the tax cuts has turned out to be fortuitously well timed."
The Democrat dilemma is that they hate the tax cut, but cannot
bring themselves to openly advocate its repeal. They really want more
government spending, but have committed themselves to a balanced budget,
which Bill Clinton and Bob Rubin convinced them was the key to prosperity.
So they are left demanding a tax increase to pay for more spending to
stimulate the economy. This strikes most Americans and all economists as a
contradiction in terms.
If Republicans prevail next month, therefore, it will not be
because they have done a good job with the economy, but because Democrats
have nothing better to offer.