"It's the economy, stupid." Those immortal words of the political philosopher James Carville in 1992 have been reverberating increasingly in the 2008 campaign. Polls show the economy as the top issue for voters, far ahead of Iraq. The general assumption is that this helps the Democrats, since the Republicans hold the White House and economic growth has stalled on their watch. But what do voters want done about the economy? And how amenable are they to the big-government programs Democrats are proposing?
On fiscal policy, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton want higher taxes, at least on high earners. They want to let at least some of the Bush tax cuts expire in 2010, as scheduled. On trade, they oppose new free-trade agreements and want to renegotiate NAFTA with Canada and Mexico.
As it happens, another president embraced such policies in a time of economic slowdown and financial market turbulence. Herbert Hoover raised taxes on high earners sharply and, ignoring a letter from 1,000 economists, signed the Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930. The results were not pretty. Until now, his example has not commended itself to Democrats. One wonders whether voters will agree that tax increases will stimulate the economy.
Obama and Clinton are also proposing a traditional Democratic remedy for recession -- more spending and new federal programs. And on the broader question of expanding government, Pew Research Center polls show an increasingly favorable opinion climate, particularly on health care, than when we elected our last two presidents, in 1992 and 2000.
One reason is generational change. Almost all voters in 1992 and a large majority in 2000 had vivid memories of the 1970s, when we had both economic stagnation and double-digit inflation -- stagflation -- and thanks to government price controls, motorists had to wait an hour in line to fill up their gas tanks. Those experiences put the advocates of bigger government on the defensive.
This year, half the voters are too young to have been behind the wheel in a gas line or to have been paying rapidly rising monthly bills with a paycheck eroded by inflation. They have lived all their adult lives -- all their lives, in the case of the millennial generation, born since 1980 -- in an era when we have had low-inflation economic growth 95 percent of the time.
In their recent book "Millennial Makeover," Morley Winograd and Michael Haides write that these Millennials have high trust in the federal government. Have Uncle Sam pay for health care? Hey, that's like, neat.
But they also say that Millennials favor systems that give them lots of choices. They want to mouse-click on the option they prefer. This, of course, is in conflict or at least tension with systems in which government makes choices for you. If young voters' positive disposition to government programs gives Democrats an opening, their preference for choices gives Republicans one, too.
As it happens, we have a recent example, the Medicare prescription drug program passed in 2003. Democrats wanted government to negotiate prices and thought that seniors would hate to choose between plans. But even the elderly, who grew up in an America where big institutions -- the U.S. military, big corporations, giant labor unions -- made choices for them, turned out to be satisfied with the choices they had under Medicare Part D. You haven't heard the Democratic presidential candidates campaigning much against it this cycle.
My sense is that voter preferences on issues like the economy and health care will depend on discussion and debate that haven't taken place yet. Voters have been concentrating on the curriculum vitae and character of the candidates, and the candidates themselves have made little in the way of argument for their positions. It's not immediately obvious what fiscal policy or health care policies voters want. It's less "the economy, stupid," than "the economy, huh?"