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On Economy, Kerry’s Message Could Be Hostage to Events

“Now this is a real economic slowdown. And I might say it’s disastrous news for American workers and businesses and even worse news for low- and moderate-income Americans who have been squeezed and squeezed and squeezed by lower wages.”

Those are not the words of Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic presidential nominee this year, or North Carolina Sen. John Edwards or Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.) or former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean or even Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. [IMGCAP(1)]

No, they were uttered by Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole in Clarksville, Tenn., on Oct. 30, 1996, just days before his bid for the presidency fell 111 Electoral College votes short of success.

Dole and before him Walter Mondale were faced with the same problem that may — I said may — confront Kerry later this year: How do you complain about the economy and criticize an administration’s handling of it when most of the economic numbers are good and the public believes that tomorrow’s economy will be better than yesterday’s?

Kerry, of course, doesn’t need to face that problem yet. And it is possible that he may never have to. The Democrats have succeeded in defining job growth as the single most important measure of the economy’s performance, and one good month of job growth doesn’t make for a jobs recovery.

Polls still show Americans are worried about jobs and giving President Bush less than sterling marks for his handling of the economy. Under these circumstances, Kerry’s criticisms of the administration are effective, putting Bush, Treasury Secretary John Snow and the entire Republican Party on the defensive.

But if March’s new job numbers are repeated in April and again in May, Americans’ views of the economy and of the president’s performance are likely to improve. And better job numbers and growing consumer confidence would put Kerry in a tough spot, as they once burdened both Dole and Mondale.

Dole hammered the Clinton administration’s performance on the economy when third-quarter numbers showed economic growth in 1996 falling to “a paltry 2.2 percent,” as Dole put it in Clarksville. But the public wasn’t buying what the GOP nominee was selling.

A mid-October ABC News poll found 48 percent of registered voters saying they were better off financially than they were four years earlier, compared to 26 percent who said they were worse off. And an overwhelming 58 percent said that they approved of the way President Bill Clinton was handling the economy.

Portraying the economy as in bad shape when voters think it looks pretty good is about as effective as talking about the light at the end of the economic tunnel when the public sees only darkness. Just ask former President George H.W. Bush, who was seen as out of touch by too many voters when he talked optimistically about the economic recovery at the end of his term.

Mondale also paid the price for losing the game of economic expectations.

The former vice president carried the Democratic presidential banner in 1984 and hoped to take political advantage of the economic pain that many Americans felt during Ronald Reagan’s first term. But it didn’t work that way.

As writer Henry Plotkin observed in a chapter in Gerald Pomper’s book “The Election of 1984,” while economic growth during the Carter presidency was greater than during Reagan’s first term, and the four-year unemployment rate was lower during Carter’s term, “Carter sought re-election as the indicators of economic health were declining, while Reagan ran for a second term when they were improving.”

This year, even with an improved jobs picture, Democrats aren’t likely to concede the economy as an issue to Bush. They surely would continue to complain about the president “running up debts,” as Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) put it on one cable TV network last week. And they could argue that the net job loss that the country has experienced during the four years of the Bush administration proves the president has been a failure in handling the economy, as Kerry has argued repeatedly.

And even if the economy grows and more jobs are created, there will be some economic bad news, including possibly rising interest rates and higher mortgage rates.

But a few months of job growth is likely to convince most Americans that the economy “has turned the corner.” If that happens, Kerry runs a great risk in complaining about the economy’s flaws. Hard-core Democratic partisans will like the red meat, but other voters may regard Kerry, not Bush, as out of touch if he talks down an economy that appears to be improving.

On the other hand, if the March job growth numbers are an aberration and the public turns even more pessimistic about the nation’s economic future, Kerry’s arguments about jobs will have greater resonance and the president will look more and more out of touch.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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