Susan Estrich: People Will Vote Their Pocketbooks

It’s still the economy, stupid.

When we’ve all seen enough of Kristen, aka Alexandra Ashley, aka the Governor’s girl; when we’ve heard enough of the Barack team and the Hillary team trashing each other; when Florida and Michigan and the Democratic National Committee finally figure out what to do with themselves and each other; and the press and the public get back to what most Americans care most about in this election year, the news couldn’t be worse for Republicans.

So if you’ve been getting a good laugh out of the Spitzer mess, or eating up the war of words between the two top Democrats, or chuckling at Florida’s ability to once again find itself in the middle of an electoral mess, my advice is simple: enjoy it while you can.

The big news of the week, at least when we look back on it, may turn out to be the President’s speech on Friday before the Economic Club of New York, an event rich in symbolism if not substance, revealing for what it says about the real contest between Democrats and Republicans over who can be trusted to address the economic issues facing this country.

Every pollster will tell you that one of the most important predictors of a candidate’s or party’s success is whether voters see the candidate or the party as understanding the problems of “people like me.”

If you don’t understand my life, then I’m not likely to trust you with the power to affect it. If you haven’t got a clue about how “the rest of us” live, how would you know how to address the problems we face?

That’s why it’s so bad for candidates when they don’t know how much a quart of milk or a box of cereal or a gallon of gas costs; it’s why advisers do more than wince when someone who holds high office doesn’t know how to pump gas or expresses surprised admiration for the gizmos that screen prices at the grocery store. Where’s he been, we ask ourselves. What planet is he on? Martians do not do well in elections held on earth.

“Bush Urges Patience on Economy,” the headline on Friday read, summarizing the President’s speech before the Economic Club of New York, a group that the Associated Press described as being “exclusive, wealthy, [and] largely homogenous” with a “membership of top executives [that] had Bush somewhat literally preaching to the choir; the 101-year-old group's new chairman is Glen Hubbard, Bush's first head of the White House Council of Economic Advisers."

In other words, with middle class Americans feeling increasingly anxious about the economy, watching their home values slide, the cost of filling the car with gas rises, and health care costs literally exploding, the President chose to make his case for patience in front of a choir of rich, white men who may be the only people in America who can afford to be patient.

After the speech, the President went off to what the AP described as “a ritzy Upper West Side apartment building overlooking Central Park” where he raised $1.4 million for the Republican national party from about 70 attendees. It’s certainly a whole lot easier to be patient if you’ve got an extra $20,000 to throw away on lunch.

For as long as the campaign lasted, there was a fundamental disconnect between the picture of the economy being painted by the Republican elite of candidates and commentators and the descriptions you would hear from voters in town meetings, forums, and Q and A sessions.

While the elites described an economy that had done well for them, in which a rising tide will lift all ships, all you’d hear from everybody else were tales of anxiety and downright fear. Even those who were doing OK, for right now, those who were still employed, still making the payments on the house, still covered by health insurance for themselves and their kids, expressed concern about the future.

Insecurity was the theme of almost every discussion.

One of the reasons Mike Huckabee did as well as he did was because, alone among the Republican candidates, he tapped into this sense of economic insecurity; on the trail, he spent at least as much time talking about the challenges faced by small businesses on Main Street as he did on the conservative values questions for which he got far more attention, both positive and negative.

The fact that the economy has overtaken the war in Iraq as the issue most on the minds of voters is not a reflection of growing support for the President’s foreign policy agenda, but greater insecurity around the dinner tables here at home.

When voters say they want change, and the economy is their top issue, the message should be clear. Patience may be a virtue, but it is no answer to an insecure and worried electorate.

McCain, who had initially opposed President Bush’s tax cuts, became an enthusiastic convert to Bush’s economic agenda during the course of the battle for the Republican nomination. But come the general election, his connection with the domestic policies of this Administration may prove even more costly to him in the eyes of voters than his support for the unpopular war in Iraq.

The conventional wisdom is that, unless we’re at war, people will vote their pocketbooks. And if they’re worried enough, they may vote their wallets even in the face of war. Patience may work for the richest of the rich, but they don’t decide elections.

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for