WASHINGTON -- The fragile morale of Republicans took a battering when the Labor Department reported only 32,000 new jobs were created in July. Democrats immediately crowed that unhappy days were here again, but the real political problem for President Bush may be his reliance on the vagaries of government statisticians to give his re-election campaign a boost.
In the opinion of economists I consulted, the 32,000-job figure reflects less the real state of the economy than faults of methodology in the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). It also points up the president's failure to effectively preach the gospel of economic growth. Two weeks away from his party's national convention, Bush has not pronounced a second term agenda.
Accordingly, what Bush says at Madison Square Garden in accepting the nomination has become crucial. Word has seeped out of the White House's locked doors of bold talk about not only Social Security reform but tax reform as well. He cannot afford to follow John Kerry's course and make his speech a patchwork of campaign applause lines. The public perception of the economy, more than Iraq, looks like the key to who will be elected president.
To appreciate the political impact of only a 32,000-job increase, compare the morale of the two political camps. When John Edwards was caught on camera this week telling supporters "we're going to win, we're going to win," he was voicing a now familiar Democratic mantra. No such confidence is exuded by Republicans. In private, doubt is constantly expressed about the outcome on Nov. 2.
Thus, the Republican faithful look to economic statistics as the ancients examined entrails of a sacrificed animal. They were so shaken by the 32,000-job figure for July that they did not sufficiently point to the absurdity of Sen. Kerry's suggestion on the campaign trail last week "that our economy may be taking a U-turn" back to recession. In fact, the BLS for more than a decade has been undercounting job creation, unable to keep up with changes in the structure of American business.
A rosier Labor Department measurement is the household survey of job increases, which showed a gain of 629,000 in July, 1,181,000 since December and 2,056,000 over the last 12 months. Furthermore, the July unemployment rate is 5.5 percent -- a low rate and exactly what it was in July 1996 when Bill Clinton was seeking re-election. In contrast, unemployment was 7.7 percent in July 1992 as the senior George Bush began his descent.