The conventional wisdom in Washington is that the Democrats will use economic issues to take back the House and secure a more workable majority in the Senate in 2002. They're in "lockstep" with the president on the war, but they think they can win the allegiance of the voters by providing an alternative to the president's economic policies. They will nail the Republicans with "Enrononomics" and blame Bush for the recession.
By my admittedly rough count, I am the 712th pundit to make this incandescently obvious observation. So let me break from the herd and tell you why I think it won't work.
Let's start with the easy stuff. First of all, the recession is ending. How do I know? Well, recessions always end eventually, and the last few didn't last very long. So why should this one be any different? This is a corollary to what the late economist Herb Stein called Stein's Law: "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop."
Indeed, it's becoming increasingly clear that Sept. 11 put the recession on fast forward. Firms that would have strung out layoffs and restructuring for months or years used the calamity to front-load all of their tough decisions. It's like pouring on the gas as you head into a valley so you can get to the uphill side as quickly as possible.
Also, on Thursday, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan declared in his testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, "There have been signs recently that some of the forces that have been restraining the economy over the past year are starting to diminish and that activity is beginning to firm." That's "Greenspan-speak" for "It's safe to spend money like a pimp on Saturday night."
But the recession doesn't even have to end before the election for the Democrats' strategy to fail. All voters really need is to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And even the pessimistic forecasters predict that by next fall the economy will be primed for recovery.
What's even more important is that the recession isn't as powerful politically as past ones. One reason is that it began too early -- March, officially -- to be blamed on Bush and the GOP.
Plus, Sept. 11 not only rushed the recession, but it erased the usual "blame game" in the minds of many voters. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll reveals that 35 percent of Americans blame the business cycle and 32 percent blame the Sept. 11 attacks and the war. But here's what must have Senator Daschle passing his morning cornflakes through his nose: Eight percent of Americans blame congressional Democrats, 6 percent blame congressional Republicans and only 5 percent blame President Bush. Greenspan is blamed by 3 percent of Americans.
I would like to think that Americans are absolving Bush of blame because they've become more well-versed in the hard lessons of the business cycle or because they understand that members of the Senate and House of both parties mess up the economy with their constant meddling more than any president does.
But I think the real reason Bush gets a pass on the recession is the media. Not so much because they've been "pro-Bush" (though on the war they've been understandably supportive), but because they've had a better story to report than the recession.
In 1991, the first President Bush was filleted by the national media for the recession. He was portrayed night after night on the evening news as being "out of touch" with the concerns of real Americans.
In a scandalously misleading front-page photo and story in The New York Times, Poppa Bush was portrayed as not understanding how a supermarket scanner works (he was actually showing polite surprise over a newfangled device that could read torn labels on canned goods and the like).
It couldn't have been scripted better by Democrats. "Here is a man who sees 20-year-old technology at the supermarket checkout line and looks like an ape discovering fire," railed then-Senator Al Gore. Even though the recession ended nearly a full year before President Clinton took office, the media waited until it could give the credit to Bush's successor.
When the media have nothing else to report, they invariably follow certain scripts. One of the most overused is that Republicans are heartless ogres who don't care about the little guy. So, for example, Ronald Reagan's 1980s were an "age of greed," while Clinton's dot-com (and Enron) '90s were an age of prosperity.
In 1988, Newsweek summarized the 1980s as when "the money culture ruled, and Ivan Boesky was some kind of hero." The Reagan years were "a time when avarice got respectable, poverty expanded and wealth became a kind of state religion." In 1999, the same magazine wrote about the 1990s: "The suddenly wealthy are no longer bogeymen. ... The rich, at long last, are very much like you or me."
This sort of script is still on file in newsrooms across the country. But the good news for President Bush is that the War on Terrorism has given the media something better to talk about. He didn't get blamed for the recession, and that's good news for the Republicans and bad news for the Democrats.