WASHINGTON – Along with national security, the economy will be among the two biggest issues in the 2004 election, say political observers. And while the economy has been sagging throughout much of President Bush's first term, the numbers suggest it is picking up steam.
If the economy continues to get better, as many predict, Democrats will have a hard time making hay of the president's policies, say some strategists.
So far, however, the Democratic debate has been more focused on attacking the president than emphasizing candidates' own policies. In the long run, that rhetoric won't be enough to form the groundwork for an effective campaign, say the experts.
“If we’re going to get anywhere in exploiting the Bush administration’s economic failures," Democrats have to shift the focus from “what’s going wrong to what are we going to do about it,” said Bruce Reed, president of the Democratic Leadership Council (search).
The only economic policy that the Democratic presidential candidates can agree on is America’s need for new economic leadership, said Kevin Hassett, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (search).
The difference between the candidates is those who say “let’s erase most of what he did” and those who say “let’s erase Bush from the pages of history,” Hassett said.
Despite the attention toward style over substance, underneath the candidates’ jabs at Bush are serious and detailed economic plans waiting to be developed. Many of the candidates differ in opinion on almost every economic issue, from tax and trade policies to how to stimulate the economy and add new jobs.
On the president's tax cut policies, the Democratic presidential hopefuls can be divided into two camps -- those who would roll back Bush's entire tax cut package -- as would Rep. Dick Gephardt (search), D-Mo., and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search) -- and those who would retain tax cuts for the middle class but repeal cuts scheduled for wealthier Americans. Included in the latter group are retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark (search) and Sens. Joe Lieberman (search), D-Conn.; John Kerry (search), D-Mass.; and John Edwards (search), D-N.C.
Candidates like Kerry and Clark are saying, “Let’s take some of the funds that are going to high-income people ... and let’s give it to higher-impact relief,” said Gene Sperling, national economic adviser to former President Clinton.
On Monday, Lieberman attempted to jumpstart his campaign with a plan for the tax structure that he said would decrease the tax rate for lower-income workers and raise it for those with higher salaries.
"The Bush tax plan is class warfare on behalf of the wealthiest," Lieberman told Fox News. "I'm essentially trying to call a cease fire."
In one of his first speeches as a candidate last month, Clark said that it is ineffective to borrow “billions of dollars to give to millionaires ... I will reduce the tax cuts Mr. Bush gave the richest households -- those making more than $200,000 a year.”
Clark said he would use the additional revenue to pay for homeland security, aid bankrupt state and local governments and create jobs.
Dean, Kerry, Lieberman, and Gephardt have all proposed nixing tax breaks for the wealthy to help pay for expanding health coverage. Gephardt, so far, has offered the most extensive plan, calling health care the “moral issue of our time.”
Whereas Kerry and Dean differ on their tax cut proposals, they do agree on the need to raise the minimum wage.
“For all the billions he gives to special interests, George Bush is against raising the minimum wage even though its purchasing power is at the lowest level in 14 years. I’ll increase the minimum wage and make our workplaces safer and healthier,” Kerry said in an August speech in New Hampshire.
Trade, however, continues to be a divisive issue among Democrats.
Dean and Gephardt have pushed for strict new environmental- and labor-standard conditions to be included in trade agreements. Following in the Clinton-Gore tradition, Kerry and Lieberman have aggressively defended free trade.
Lieberman has cited the importance of free trade in expanding exports. He has also criticized resurgent protectionism by some in the Democratic Party, saying it would be a “big mistake to turn back the clock on trade.”
Despite their early positions, it's too early to draw any conclusions on the candidates' policies, said Robert J. Shapiro, under secretary of commerce for economic affairs during the Clinton administration.
“This is still just October. Campaigns evolve. The economic program of whoever is the nominee” has yet to be finalized, Shapiro said.
All the candidates have called Bush fiscally irresponsible, and Dean, Edwards, Kerry, and Lieberman have emphasized as a top priority reducing the federal deficit, estimated at $374 billion in fiscal year 2003.
Sperling acknowledged that many of the recent hits to the economy -- the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, corporate scandals at Enron and elsewhere and the shallow dip into recession in 2001 -- are not Bush’s fault, but problems he either inherited or was forced to confront.
For the Democratic candidates, said Sperling, if they continue to focus on Bush rather than their own plans, the challenge will be to frame the debate not by accusing the president of weakening the economy, but by asking him, “Did you act ... to really put jumpstarting the economy and jobs first?”