Bush-Hoover '04?

Posted: Nov 17, 2003 12:00 AM

Herbert Hoover never had it so good.

Inattentive voters listening to the Democrats' anti-Bush rhetoric could be forgiven for thinking that the Depression-era Republican had returned from the grave to occupy the White House once again. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says President Bush has "the worst record on jobs since Herbert Hoover," a charge echoed by every Democrat in the country and repeated incessantly by Democratic presidential candidates. The more times they can say Hoover -- Hoover, Hoover, Hoover -- the better.

According to Dick Gephardt, "Bush has lost more jobs than Herbert Hoover -- almost." On that "almost" (Gephardt is only off by about 10 million jobs) hangs a prodigious amount of partisan spin and most of the Democratic economic case against George Bush. The heavy-breathing rhetoric -- have I mentioned Hoover lately? -- is meant to mask the weakness of that case. The fact is that if Hoover had Bush's economic record, he would have been delighted, and would be remembered today as a kind of economic genius.

It is understandable that in the years after 1932, Democrats would want to run against Hoover, but 70 years later it's getting, uh, a little tired. In the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton portrayed a mild recession that had ended in March 1991 -- months before he had even officially announced his candidacy for president -- as the worst economy since the Great Depression. Now, hoping to repeat Clinton's magic against another Bush incumbent, Democrats are back to Depression-era comparisons again.

The purported return of Hoovervilles is based on the factoid that Bush is going to be the first president since -- drumroll, please -- Hoover to preside over an economy that has lost more jobs than it gained during his term in office. True. But this is mostly a matter of timing. Bush inherited an economy from Clinton in 2001 that was sinking fast toward recession (Democrats attacked Bush at the time for pointing this out). Some 200,000 manufacturing jobs had been lost before he took the oath of office, and many more were lost before his economic program had any chance to take effect. If Democrats were being strictly accurate, they would say Clinton and Bush have jointly presided over the worst period of job loss since ... well, you know who.

One reason that job growth has been slow is that productivity increases have been astronomical -- 8.1 percent in the last quarter. That means the economy can produce more with less, a wondrous thing that benefits the economy and eventually the job market, too. Already, the employment rate has ticked down from 6.1 percent to 6 percent, a level that was considered good as recently as the mid-1990s, when Clinton was already touting his own economic genius.

Which is just one reason that the Hoover sound bite is unlikely to resonate with voters: It is absurdly disconnected from reality. Yes, it makes sense to compare the Bush and Hoover economic records. If, that is, you put aside the fact that Bush's record is lacking the decline in gross national product of 9.4 percent, 8.5 percent and 13.4 percent three years running, the 80 percent decline in the value of industrial stocks, the failure of almost half the banks, the collapse of capital investment, the catastrophic drop in international trade, and the 23.6 percent unemployment rate. In other words, it makes no sense at all.

The odd thing about the Hoover-obsessed Democrats is that they are the ones advocating Hooverite economic policies. Under Hoover, the top income-tax rate went from 25 percent to 63 percent, and 40 percent tariffs were imposed on imports. Most Democratic presidential candidates, including front-runner Howard Dean, support tax increases and protectionism. One of the few Democratic free-traders, Sen. Joe Lieberman, recently warned that if these policies were put into effect, "the Bush recession would be followed by the Dean depression." Which would be the first time the country suffered a depression since ...