The frustrating politics of prosperity

A surplus just doesn't motivate voters like recession, and many don't credit government with good times.

Black ink is flowing like the Potomac in Washington - and the fiscal good times are perhaps rewriting the rules of presidential politics.

Call it the prosperity paradox. It's been so long since Uncle Sam last ran a deficit that voters, for all practical purposes, may now take surpluses for granted. That explains why Vice President Al Gore gets little credit for the administration's eight years of economic stewardship. It also means that Gov. George W. Bush's tax-cut proposal does not seem as trenchant to many voters as it might.

In the age of Internet riches, a politician's stand on economic issues just isn't the defining stance it used to be. With their conventions only weeks away, the candidates of both major parties are still struggling to differentiate themselves on economics and connect to voter pocketbook concerns.

"This is the first national election where the issue will be what we do with the surplus," says Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth.

And what a surplus it is. Or, to be more accurate, what a possible surplus it might be.

On June 26 President Clinton raised his administration's projection of the 10-year surplus by $1.3 trillion. Yes, that's "trillion" with a "t," a number heretofore seen in Washington only in connection with the word "shortfall."

Economists now estimate the federal government will run just over $4 trillion in the black through 2010. About half of that money will be generated by Social Security trust funds, and is rated off-limits by Democrats and Republicans. The rest? Free play.

The nation's fiscal health could turn out to be the most profound legacy of the Clinton administration, which worked with congressional Republicans to produce a historic budget-balancing agreement.

Yet that health has not translated into electoral strength for the administration's second-in-command, despite the truism that it's tough to oust incumbents in good times.

A recent Washington Post/ABC poll found that Bush led Gore on the question of economic management, 46 to 41 percent. Overall, the vice president trails the Texas governor in most surveys, by varying amounts.

Gore may not be profiting from the good economy in part because voters today see corporations such as Microsoft, Cisco, Dell, and other Information Age icons - rather than government - as the engines of growth.

Interest rates could yet become a political issue. But the virtual disappearance of inflation and a long stretch of historically low rates have muted criticism of the Federal Reserve.

Experts point out that the absolute state of the economy matters less in presidential elections than its direction. If the nation had recently pulled out of recession, Gore - ironically - might be better off.

"People are getting used to the prosperity and maybe taking it for granted," says Robert Feinberg, an economist at American University here.

That hasn't been for lack of trying on the part of candidates.

Take Social Security. Early on, Bush proposed a partial investment of Social Security funds in the stock market as a means of improving the fiscal prospects for the big retirement program. More recently, Gore proposed spending some of the surplus to subsidize individual retirement accounts that would augment Social Security checks.

Social Security is a big issue, and it gets some voters - particularly elderly ones - very excited. But in a general election, it is not the hot-button item that, say, recession-recovery plans would be. Job security is a more immediate concern for most than retirement security, and voters are (not surprisingly) most interested in immediate concerns.

That explains the sudden flurry of attempts by Gore and Bush to blame high gas prices on the other guy. The price of a fill up hits virtually every adult in the US in the pocketbook, every week.

"Voters are notorious for being interested in appeals to the here and now," says Tami Buhr, a political scientist and voter expert at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Some see the failure of economic issues to catch fire as proof that the difference between Democrats and Republicans is much less than the parties profess it to be.

On spending issues, the Clinton administration and the Republicans in Congress actually vary little, says Mr. Moore. In the past several years, legislators have ended up voting for more total spending than the administration's budgets requested.

And he predicts that the sheer size of the projected surplus will allow the two sides to paper over differences on taxes and issues such as prescription-drug programs, at least for a few years. The politics of scarcity has gone into abeyance. The politics of possible prosperity far into the future means that there might be enough cash to pay for major portions of everybody's programs.

"You can sort of see this outcome for the next few years where both sides get what they want," Moore says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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