A Bum Economy Is No Boost for Dems

Polls show voters think Bush and the GOP are too beholden to business. Still, they're happy with the Administration's economic stewardship

By Richard S. Dunham

What is one to make of all the strange and seemingly contradictory public opinion polls taken in the wake of the Enron scandal? In this moment of worker and shareholder outrage, Democratic liberals take solace in the fact that Americans think Big Business has too much influence over the Bush Administration and congressional Republicans. Yet voters say they would rather have President Bush than congressional Democrats handling virtually every economic challenge the U.S. faces, from resurgent deficits to restoring prosperity.

What's going on here? Here's a quick guide for cutting through the fog:

Shame, shame, but where's the blame? In speeches and public appearances of late, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has been test-marketing a political message for 2002: The Bush tax cut last year hastened and deepened the nation's economic decline. Trouble is, the message isn't selling. Not only do economists beg to differ, but so do grassroots voters.

A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll found that only 5% of Americans say Bush is most responsible for the recession (tied with Bill Clinton and Congress). The top culprits, according to voters: Economic cycles (36%) and the September 11 attacks, anthrax scares, and war in Afghanistan (19%). Advantage: Bush and the GOP.

Deficit politics. Here's a a bit of a stunner: The federal surplus has dried up faster than a puddle of black ink in the Texas sun, yet the President isn't being held responsible by voters. Overall, 55% of voters say Bush bears little or no responsibility for the return of deficit spending in Washington, according to a Jan. 24-27 ABC News/Washington Post Poll.

Only one in four voters believes that last year's tax cuts were primarily responsible for the vanishing budget surplus, according to Fox/Opinion Dynamics. The only ray of light for Democrats: A majority of those polled say they would postpone future installments of the Bush tax cut if it becomes necessary to help balance the budget. But few Democrats (most notably Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts) are willing to wade into the thicket of tax-cut politics. Advantage: Republicans -- despite the aggressive efforts of Daschle, Kennedy, et al.

Managing the economy. During downturns, the party in control of the White House usually takes a huge hit at the ballot box. Voters tend to blame the "in" party for either mishandling or ignoring the economic problems. That doesn't seem to be happening now -- at least not yet. According to the Jan. 24-27 ABC News/Washington Post Poll, voters approve of the President's economic management, 62% to 34%, down from a November high of 72% but significantly higher than his Sept. 9 nadir of 48%.

The news is good for GOP congressional candidates as well. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, in a poll conducted Jan. 9-13, found that voters favor the Republicans over Democrats as better stewards of the economy, 43% to 34%. That same poll showed the parties dead even last summer. This is a major turnaround from the Clinton years, when Democrats held a commanding edge as the party of prosperity. "There are surprisingly few good signs out there for the Democrats," says Trinity College political scientist Diana Evans. "The economy is in recession, but it's not redounding to their benefit. The only thing the Democrats can hope for is that people continue to lose their jobs." Advantage: Republicans.

Hi-ho, it's off to work we go. President Bush sums up his top domestic priority in one word: jobs. It's an audacious attempt to steal a traditionally Democratic issue. And it appears to be resonating with voters. The bipartisan Battleground Poll, conducted Jan. 6-8, found that 42% of Americans said congressional Democrats would do a better job of creating jobs in the country, while 39% said that Bush would. That's an uncomfortably narrow edge for Democrats on an issue they traditionally have owned.

Republican National Chairman Marc Racicot told BusinessWeek Online that the recent polls offer "inspiration and encouragement to Republican candidates." But, he warns, "we have a very long way to go" before the party wins an advantage. Advantage: None.

Fairness. The 2002 Democratic campaign strategy is boiling down to an extended attack on the Bush White House and congressional Republicans as protectors of the wealthy and corporate interests at the expense of middle-class workers. The Enron scandal and the ongoing flap over the Administration's industry-friendly energy bill play into this argument.

But how are the voters responding? The Battleground Poll finds that Dems hold an edge over Bush in "protecting the middle class," 47% to 38%. "Bush's greatest weakness is the suspicion that he is on the side of the powerful and corporations," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

The President, however, isn't the easy target that former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich was. Even President Ronald Reagan was easy to pummel in the midst of the 1982 recession that resulted in big Democratic gains in the House and Senate that year. Yet nearly 60% of Americans still say Bush shares their priorities, according to a Jan. 15-17 CBS News Poll. And 68% say he "cares about the needs and problems of people like yourself." With those kinds of numbers, Bush will be hard to demonize as an uncaring shill for the rich. Advantage: Democrats, but not by much.

Enron's aftermath. An anticorporate backlash is clearly resulting from the plight of Enron workers whose retirement savings were destroyed in the company's free fall. A BusinessWeek/Harris Poll conducted Jan. 16-21 found that 79% of adults believe corporate execs put their own interests ahead of workers' and shareholders'.

Most Americans think big corporations have too much influence in the White House and Capitol -- though Americans also think lawmakers are more malleable than the President when it comes to satisfying corporate interests. Indeed, a survey by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg found that 69% of voters think corporations have too influence in the Bush Administration, and 87% say they have too much sway over Congress. What's more, 34% of voters felt less confident about George W. Bush because of Enron, while an even larger percentage -- 37% -- felt less confident about congressional Democrats.

Bush is taking a pounding for refusing to disclose all Administration contacts with Enron execs. A majority of Americans think White House officials are either hiding something or lying about their dealings with Enron, according to the CBS poll. Advantage: Democrats. And that advantage could grow if Bush doesn't defuse the standoff over the release of information involving Administration contacts with Enron and other energy-industry interests (see BW Online, 1//28/02, "Time for Bush to Tell All about Enron").

Will your future be better? Voters seem to have forgotten the eight years of unusual prosperity under President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. The Battleground Poll finds that, by 49% to 29%, voters see Bush -- rather than the Democrats -- better equipped to keep the nation prosperous. And despite the recession, voters see better financial times on the horizon, for their families and for the country.

More than two-thirds of voters expect the recession to be over this year, if it hasn't already run its course, according to the ABC News/Washington Post Poll. "Voters are more in a mind set of 'coming out of a recession' than going deeper into one," says GOP pollster Ed Goeas. That's just in time for the 2002 midterm elections. That's unquestionably good news for Republicans. Advantage: GOP, which is hoping for optimistic -- not frustrated and out-of-work -- voters in the fall.

Bottom line: It doesn't look as if Democrats can use the economy as a "silver bullet" to win back the House of Representatives and strengthen their weak, one-vote grip on the Senate. Even if the economy ends up a net draw (and it's a slight plus for the GOP today), the Democrats are far behind in other top issues on voters' minds, such as military matters, homeland defense, and even education. Small wonder Republicans are smiling their way through the recession.

Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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