No, it's not just the economy...

At the convention, Gore hopes to rebuild link between prosperity and electability.

For most of this century, if there has been one truism in politics it's that the economy usually drives who wins the White House.

In good times, the party in power stays in office. In bad, it goes.

But this year, perhaps for the first time since the 1930s, the epoxy-tight bond between politics and prosperity may be broken. That portends a serious challenge for Vice President Al Gore as the Democrats open their convention tonight in Los Angeles and may change how presidents are selected in the future.

In fact, a central task confronting the party over the next four days, starting with President Clinton's speech tonight, will be to persuade voters that the Democrats are responsible for the longest economic expansion in US history. In other words, make Mr. Gore look a lot like Alan Greenspan in a cardigan sweater. No need for a change of party. Let's just keep this thing going.

By all accounts, Gore shouldn't have to do this. As the heir apparent to an administration that has overseen, or at least been present for, an economy that is the envy of the world, he should only have to show up for work to get credit.

Not this year.

The expansion has now been going for so long - nine years and counting - that many voters take the good times for granted. It's just background noise, like a neighbor's radio, only more pleasant. Nor do many people see one person as solely responsible for it. If they do, it's probably Mr. Greenspan and his band of renown at the Federal Reserve. Or perhaps American businesses themselves.

Thus voters are looking at other issues - and, more central, character - to drive their choices in these quiescent times.

"History says the incumbent party almost always gets reelected [when the economy is good], yet we've got a president who has great job-approval ratings but terrible personal ratings," says Republican pollster Robert Teeter. "Therein lies the tension of this campaign."

Beneath this decoupling of politics and prosperity, a number of forces are at work. Partly, there's been an actual change in how America's economy functions - one that has diminished the president's ability to have much effect.

Partly, there's been a shift in public perceptions of who's responsible for good times. Many people today, more sophisticated in their knowledge of how the economy works, give much of the credit to the Federal Reserve Board.

"We have Milton Friedman to thank for that," says Murray Weidenbaum, head of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Ronald Reagan. Mr. Friedman led the shift from fiscal to monetary policy - from a focus on using the federal budget to stimulate or slow the economy to an emphasis on controlling the money supply by adjusting interest rates.

Another shift, Dr. Weidenbaum points out, was a "silent crossover" in 1981 - when the private sector began spending more money on research and development than the federal government did.

Suddenly, the bulk of US innovation was coming from corporations, who then began to reap big profits from the work.

Another change - deregulation - led to even more corporate creativity and moneymaking. In the 1970s and '80s, "there was a massive change in how we handled the underlying regulatory structure in the economy," says Robert McGukin, an economist at the Conference Board in New York. "It freed up a lot of creativity."

But it may be the public's own shift in perceptions that matters most in an election year. A recent Fox News survey asked voters who was more responsible for creating jobs: Bill Clinton or Bill Gates. The Microsoft founder, Mr. Gates, won 45 percent to 29 percent.

Surveys regularly show the Federal Reserve and the high-tech sector getting more credit for the economy than the president.

Also, over the past three decades, popular faith in government's ability to get things done - including keeping the economy strong - has waned.

Then there's the dimmer memory of recession. It's been nearly 10 years since the last one, and people's recollections of hard times are blurred. "Some of the fear factor has been washed out of the equation," says Christopher Arterton, a political scientist at George Washington University.

Still, Mr. Clinton does get kudos - even if grudging - for the economy's performance. "He mostly gets credit for not messing it up," says Mr. Teeter.

As Gore heads into the convention, all this means he'll have to work doubly hard to claim any credit. So far, he's taken a smart approach, says Professor Arterton. He's not saying the Clinton-Gore team alone created the long-running prosperity - but that Republican nominee George W. Bush threatens to destroy it.

"The more Bush ties himself to his father's administration" - by picking people such as Dick Cheney who served back then - "the better case Gore has that electing Bush would turn back the clock to the people who gave us the last recession."

But Gore will also have to focus on other issues. Absent economic and foreign-policy concerns, people's biggest worries are about "families' ability to raise children," says Teeter. This encompasses everything from education to gun control to lack of time outside work. These are the issues that will decide the election, he says.

Yet others insist people will vote their pocketbooks. Gore "will get credit for it," says American University presidential scholar Allan Lichtman. "And he'll win."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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