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Economy: A Political ‘Minefield’

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/candidates.jpgSen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) (WDCPix)

As Sen. Barack Obama has learned in recent days, it’s easy to slip up when taking on economic issues in a political campaign.

From Walter F. Mondale vowing at the 1984 Democratic convention to raise taxes to President George H.W. Bush supposedly marveling at a grocery scanner in 1992, campaign histories are littered with those who seemed to misstep or misspeak on the economy. Most politicians aren’t financial experts after all, and some are better than others at distilling complicated economic problems into sound bites and campaign commercials.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

But it’s especially tricky this year, with the electorate in a sour mood about the direction of the country, home foreclosures at record highs and a complex global credit crisis looming.

Politicians rely on advisors to help them come up with economic plans, but any grand ideas usually get reduced to policy proposals and promises. And if candidates venture into making off-the-cuff observations, they can quickly get into trouble. There’s the 24-hour news cycle, with comments taking on a life of their own on the Internet.

And sometimes an opponent simply chooses to avoid the issue, when possible. There’s the Republican almost-nominee, Sen. John McCain, who, despite outlining a few economic plans here and there, would clearly prefer to focus on anything but the economy.

McCain has said he doesn’t really understand economics, and he is probably hoping to avoid being tied closely to the policies of President George W. Bush. (In his economic speech Tuesday, McCain called for suspending the gas tax during the summer months.) In addition, if he can make this general election about values, like elitism, rather than about the big problems with the economy, the GOP might have a better chance.

Meanwhile, a longer-than-usual Democratic race is prompting more-than-the-typical economic pandering required of a campaign. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has been recalling a gun totin’ childhood, while Obama has appeared in bowling shoes.

So when anyone veers off message and blurts out a less-than-considered comment, it’s going to be magnified and amplified even more than usual. And it’s going to cost them.

“The economy is a minefield for any politician,” said Richard K. Vedder, an economics professor at Ohio University, who watched, appalled, as the Democratic candidates trod through his state recently, spouting slogans that were vehemently anti-North American Free Trade Agreement. Their talk even managed to antagonize America’s usually genial northern neighbor, Canada. The economy, Vedder said, “defines our living standards and our way of life. If you say something whacko, you are very much putting yourself at risk.”

The thing is that, until this latest flap, Obama seemed to be taking a more thoughtful approach on the economy. He appeared to be bucking the trend of issuing superficial economic slogans and laundry lists of policy proposals, said Jeffrey K. Tulis, a University of Texas political science professor. He pointed to Obama’s Cooper Union economic speech in New York last month as an example of the substantive oratory and historical perspective missing elsewhere in the campaign.

Tullis noted that Obama was trying to put the need for more oversight of the financial markets in context. “It was a different kind of rhetoric,” Tulis said.

In the speech, which did not receive the wall-to-wall coverage accorded Obama’s comments at a San Francisco fund-raiser, the Illinois senator reviewed the emergence of financial markets in the United States, going back to the nation’s Founding Fathers and the philosophical differences between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

He also talked about the excesses and changing conditions that have sometimes led to new regulations:

Our history should give us confidence that we don’t have to choose between an oppressive government-run economy and a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism. It tells us we can emerge from great economic upheavals stronger, not weaker. But we can do so only if we restore confidence in our markets. Only if we rebuild trust between investors and lenders. And only if we renew that common interest between Wall Street and Main Street that is the key to our success.

Tulis said this Obama speech was reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt’s crafting a version of capitalism that involved curbing its excesses and promoting government activism for the greater good, like economic opportunity. Roosevelt became famous for trust-busting, railroad regulation and for trying to find a balance between strong laissez-faire capitalism and socialism. Tulis called TR’s approach a “rhetoric of moderation” and he said that he saw evidence of those themes in Obama’s recent speech.

But with the race so competitive, it’s unlikely Obama — or any other candidate — will again try to engage the voters with nuanced economic analyses. They did not respond to his layered, complicated speech. Instead, both McCain and Clinton leaped quickly to brand Obama’s fund-raiser comments as elitist. Clinton even threw back a shot of Crown Royal to prove her blue-collar credentials.

Tulis isn’t sure that’s going to work. “She looks foolish,” he said, “It’s precisely because she made a big deal of this that she looks ridiculous.”

The Obama flap may yet pass. When it comes to campaign killers that have stood the test of time, to most political experts the winner remains Mondale’s declaration: “Let’s tell the truth… Mr. Reagan will raise taxes and so will I. He won’t tell you. I just did.”

The Republican incumbent, Ronald Reagan, responded not with a detailed economic blueprint, but with the now-classic “Morning in America” commercials, brimming with optimism and hope. He carried 49 of 50 states.

Reagan also was a master at doing something most politicians can’t — talking about the economy with simplicity and humor. In 1976, the Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter was successfully able to taunt the Republican incumbent, President Gerald R. Ford, by citing the Misery Index, the sum of the unemployment and inflation rates.

But Reagan turned the tables on Carter in 1980, noting the Misery Index was at a record high. Then he asked the famous question: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” That pretty much ended Carter’s re-election bid.

In 1992, Bill Clinton was able to display an empathy for the problems of ordinary Americans and, though the country was already emerging from a recession, he successfully put the blame for economic woes on Bush. Clinton also skillfully pushed the benefits of free trade and globalization, describing a new economy where what you earn depends on what you learn, and he pledged that government could help pave the way. “He was very good on the economy in ’92,” said B. Dan Wood, a political science professor at Texas A & M University.

But possibly the best economic campaigner ever was William Jennings Bryan, who made some 600 speeches during the 1896 race against William McKinley to push his populist views at a time of tremendous change for the country, said Thomas Kane, a communications professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Bryan invented the modern stump speech, Kane noted, and his “Cross of Gold” talk at the convention, urging repeal of the gold standard to help distressed farmers, is still considered one of the greatest political speeches ever made.

Bryan still lost to McKinley that November. But, in many ways, he paved the way for Theodore Roosevelt’s economic populism and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s soaring economic rhetoric during the Great Depression years, Kane said.

One problem for Bryan was the front-porch campaign of McKinley, in which McKinley stayed put at his Canton, Ohio, home and didn’t engage his opponent. There are some parallels this year, in that Democrats want to emphasize economic problems, while McCain is less enthused.

“You can’t run on the economy if you’re a Republican,” Kane said. “You can talk about fear, you can talk about Al Qaeda, you can talk about Iraq. But you’re not going to talk about the economy.”

Given Obama’s recent experience, it’s hard to talk about economics even when you are a Democrat. It might be the issue that voters are most worried about, but running on it is a difficult process for any candidate.

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