LET there be no doubt: George Bush is the candidate of the status quo. That is not necessarily said pejoratively. During his economics ``focus week'' on the campaign trail, the vice-president himself would say that he is running on the prosperity of the Reagan years and promising to continue President Reagan's policies for four more years.
He is not just blowing smoke. Day after day, government figures come out, as if on cue, reinforcing the image of economic robustness. The trade deficit for July, for instance, released Wednesday, was the smallest since December 1984.
Mr. Bush's opponent, Michael Dukakis, is fighting an uphill battle if he tries to say that these are not good times for most Americans. His point about the middle class being caught in a squeeze, however, is likely to find resonance within the electorate.
Unemployment and inflation are down, and tax rates are lower than they were - and so why do houses cost so much? and why do young adults so often today emerge from graduate or professional school with debt burdens approaching what they might have expected to pay for a house?
Both sides of this debate can marshal statistics to bolster their cases.
Yes, more people are working than ever before - but more people are having to work. There is less room on the margins. Modest neighborhoods get pushed upscale, often out of reach of those who grew up in them. The workplace is less forgiving for those with inadequate education.
Given the relative affluence of the majority, though, Bush is sticking to familiar policies:
Not raising taxes (``Read my lips'').
Broadening growth with tax breaks to stimulate energy industries and rural business.
Increasing economic freedom by giving individuals government incentives rather than enacting big social programs.
And promoting free trade.
He also favors cutting the capital-gains tax as an economic stimulus measure.
He leaves unclear how he would trim the budget deficit, other than by cutting unspecified programs. The military base closures he advocates are coming anyway, and the military procurement reforms he calls for are unlikely to dent the deficit.
Nicholas Brady, newly confirmed this week as secretary of the Treasury and likely to be continued in the post under a Bush administration, gave in his Senate testimony similar endorsement of Reaganomics. We will grow out of the budget deficit, he said, claiming that as a proportion of gross national product, it has ``declined substantially'' over the past eight to 10 years.
In fact, White House budget office figures show that the deficit peaked at 5.7 percent of GNP in 1986, and then fell to 3.9 percent in 1987 - but was 1.9 percent eight years earlier and 2.6 percent 10 years earlier.
We have heard this before. But the Bush economic rhetoric raises questions of its own, because the vice-president has started signing on to things like child-care programs, which are going to cost money, without saying how they are to be paid for, unless a capital-gains cut stimulates revenues beyond all imaginings.