Credit for Clintonomics

A good economy isn't just found somewhere "like a turtle on a fence post," President Clinton told Democrats in L.A.

That was a native Arkansan's colorful way of pumping up the ability of a president to make or break an economy. Or, as an old campaign slogan had it, put a chicken in every pot.

Chickens and turtles aside, the American economy is now so huge, complex, and dynamic that the government serves more as a minor maintenance man than a grand creator. Presidents tend to get more blame if something goes wrong than credit if things go right.

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And the good times have been rolling along for so long (nine years) that too many voters take prosperity almost as a given, especially with a recession nowhere in sight.

Then, too, Americans have grown in economic literacy. They understand how interest rate shifts by the Federal Reserve, productivity gains from computers and in-their-prime baby boomers, and the efficiency of capital markets drive the economy more than Washington.

Still, to help Al Gore succeed him in the White House, Mr. Clinton claimed during his farewell speech at the Democratic convention that they both deserve credit for the nation's longest economic expansion. More than that, both claim George W. Bush would destroy the economy, mainly by oversized tax cuts that would bust the budget and thus hike interest rates.

Politicians can be cut some slack for exaggeration during a campaign, but Clinton might have helped Gore better if he admitted government's limited role in creating the New Economy and made other claims instead.

For starters, the "new Democrats" of Clinton and Gore deserve credit for forcing their party's liberals to accept balanced budgets, free trade, smaller government, and debt reduction as good for "working families."

Gore, after seeing the GOP take Congress in 1994, pushed hard for budget caps and trimming bureaucracy. Clinton further globalized the economy by pushing Democrats to accept the World Trade Organization and a free-trade pact with Mexico and Canada. And this year, he began to pay off the country's $3.5 trillion in publicly held debt.

Clinton also astutely reacted to Asia's 1997 financial crisis.

Much of his economic greatness was thrust upon him, despite his instincts to expand tax breaks and government spending for social purposes. And many of this economy's cornerstones were laid by Reaganonmics as well as Clintonomics. Still, one poll shows Americans giving more credibility to Democrats in running the economy.

Beyond all that, Democrats have come to see how a long, healthy economy can lift the poor and help inner cities even more than government programs. It's a credit to Clinton that black leaders now implore the Fed not to raise interest rates as much as they ask Congress for new programs.

The politics of taking credit for prosperity haven't changed much. But the prosperity has. Whether Bush or Gore wins in November, either one will be trimming the sails of an economy speeding along largely on its own.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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