The choice for voters in this year's fierce fight for congressional control will come down to a single question: Which political party -- Democrats or Republicans -- will do a better job coping with crippling unemployment and a devastating deficit?
To Democrats, the answer is obvious. Just look at the recent record. Bill Clinton took the White House at a time of financial turmoil and during the course of his eight years in office steered the nation to sharply lower unemployment while turning deep deficits into budget surpluses.
Liberals believe the good times ended abruptly with George W. Bush, who turned the nation from the grandeur of its Clintonian golden age to the fiscal wreckage that characterized his two terms of conservative misrule.
As President Barack Obama plaintively inquires on the campaign trail, "Why would anyone want to go back to the economic policies that got us into this mess in the first place?"
Though endlessly regurgitated by mass media, this melodramatic (and highly partisan) storyline amounts to a misleading simplification of the historical record.
Indeed, looking at the data, it would be more accurate to talk about the "Gingrich boom" and the "Pelosi collapse," than to rant so endlessly about the "Clinton boom" and the "Bush collapse."
Official U.S. government figures show that the two presidents each experienced decisive turning points that shifted the fiscal fate of the nation when voters in midterm elections rejected the party in power.
In Clinton's case, the "Republican Revolution" of 1994 saved his floundering presidency and brought about his reputation for savvy financial management. For George W. Bush, however, the 2006 triumph of Pelosi's Democrats (based largely on Iraq war disillusionment) led straight to disaster, turning a president with a solid economic record into a symbol of catastrophic collapse.
During the first two years of Clinton's term of office, while Democrats enjoyed overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress, the average unemployment was rate 6.5 percent -- even worse than the 6.3 percent four-year average of his predecessor, George H.W. Bush, who'd been voted out of office because of economic hard times. Following the 1994 GOP congressional takeover (for the first time in 40 years), business conditions dramatically improved, with the unemployment rate declining to an average of 4.77 percent (during the six years the Republicans and Clinton exercised divided rule).