Who's Better in the Driver's Seat?
Arthur I. Blaustein
A businessman who voted for Bush four years ago, and
Clinton in '96, told me, "John Kerry sounds really
impressive and I have to admit that the goals of his
social programs - particularly health care, education
and the environment - seem good. But I'm worried the
Democrats can't manage the economy as well and they'll
get into my wallet."
Many voters agree, and a recent poll shows that the
majority cites the economy as their top concern. For
years the pollsters have found that most voters
believe the Republicans do better with the economy.
I've heard the businessman's basic point - that the
Democrats have better social policies but the
Republicans are better managers of the economy - more
often than I've heard Judy Garland sing "Over the
Rainbow." But is it true?
Don't count on this question being examined and
answered in a full, open, and honest debate.
Twenty-five years ago, we entered an entirely new
phase of presidential politics. The focus now is on
who can raise the most money and package the best
media image, rather than who can demonstrate the most
competence and capacity to govern. Our country's
political, economic, and social life has been reduced
to a battle of fifteen-second sound bites and
thirty-second commercials, with results reported like
a football score. TV news has turned democracy into
Fortunately, we don't have to depend on campaign
slogans or advertising bucks to frame the debate. We
can look to the record.
Here's the Economic Sweepstakes Quiz. The rules are
simple. Guess which president since World War II did
best on these eight most generally accepted measures
of good management of the nation's economy. You can
choose among six Republicans: Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford,
Reagan, Bushes I and II; and five Democrats: Truman,
Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton. (No peeking.)
Which president produced:
1. The highest growth in the gross domestic product?
2. The highest growth in jobs?
3. The biggest increase in personal disposable income
4. The highest growth in industrial production?
5. The highest growth in hourly wages?
6. The lowest Misery Index (inflation plus
7. The lowest inflation?
8. The largest reduction in the deficit?
The answers are:
1. Harry Truman, 2. Bill Clinton, 3. Lyndon Johnson,
4. John F. Kennedy, 5. Johnson, 6. Truman, 7. Truman,
In the Economic Sweepstakes, Democratic presidents
trounce Republicans eight times out of eight! If this
isn't enough to destroy the myth that the economy has
performed better under Republicans, the stock market
has also done better under the Democrats. The Dow
Jones Industrial Average during the twentieth century
has risen 7.3 percent on average per year under
Republican presidents. Under Democrats, it rose 10.3
percent - which means investors gained a whopping 41
percent more. And the stock market declined 4
percent, on average, during George W's first three
Moreover, since WWII, Democratic presidents have
increased the national debt by an average of 3.7% per
year and Republican presidents have increased it an
average of 9.1%. During the same time period,
Democratic presidents produced, on average, an
unemployment rate of 4.8%; Republicans, 6.3%.
That's the historical record. What about present
The Clinton-Gore administration presided over the
longest peacetime economic expansion in our history.
The national debt was reduced dramatically, the
industrial sector boomed, wages grew, and more
Americans found jobs. How has the Bush-Cheney team
fared? In the past three years, we have experienced
the weakest job creation cycle since the Great
Depression, record household debt, a record bankruptcy
rate, and a substantial increase in poverty. We have
gone from being the nation with the biggest budget
surplus in history to becoming the nation with the
largest deficit in history.
Bush believes the free market will solve America's
economic problems. Kerry, on the other hand,
maintains that government has the responsibility to
keep our economy on the right track. Kerry says he
will work toward reducing the debt and deficit. He
pledges to help the middle class and the working poor
by maintaining benefit levels and eligibility for the
Earned Income Tax Credit. He will hold the line on
our tax progressivity and fairness, by rolling back
the Bush tax giveaways to taxpayers earning over
$200,000 annually. And Kerry wants to target health
care, education, affordable housing, and the
environment with critical investments.
Bush wants to privatize Social Security and Medicare,
although he gets dangerously vague about this at
election time. To finance government spending in the
wake of his tax cuts for the wealthy, Bush is
borrowing heavily from the Social Security Trust Fund.
At the same time, the United States owes huge amounts
to foreign investors, and the federal debt has soared
29% since Bush took office, to reach $7.3 trillion.
George W. is mired in the failed economic policies of
his Republican predecessors. In 1980, Bush I called
supply-side policies "voodoo economics." But he
embraced these "trickle-down" policies in order to
become vice-president and then president. Reagan and
Bush's royalist economic policies of the '80's were
failures - a fool's paradise built on the sands of
borrowed time and borrowed money. The consequences
were staggering debt, industrial decline, shrinking
wages, two painful recessions, increased poverty, and
structural unemployment. The reckless Reagan-Bush
spending and borrowing brought us to the brink of
social catastrophe and economic depression.
Claims of compassion aside, Bush II has emerged as
nothing more than a supply-sider in the mold of his
father and his father's former boss. Since George W.
Bush took office, corporate profits have gone up
57.5%, while workers' wages and benefits have
increased a miniscule 1.57%. That shows just who is
the object of Bush's compassion.
The Bush administration, supported by Republicans on
Capitol Hill, pushed through a sweeping tax cut in
2001, under which the wealthiest one percent of
Americans reaped 43 percent of the gain. In less than
a year and a half, the federal government's 10-year
projected budget surplus of $1.6 trillion has
vanished. In 2000, we had a surplus of $236 billion.
In 2003, we had a deficit of $375 billion. This
dramatic reversal is the direct consequence of Bush's
Since then, the Bush administration's answer for the
nation's economic woes is two more tax cuts for the
wealthy individuals and corporations who, by no
coincidence, contribute to the Bush campaign. It's
"trickle-down" economics with a vengeance. In denying
the tax cut's role in the nation's current problems,
and placing the blame instead on 9/11 and corporate
malfeasance, the administration is trying to cook the
books - not unlike Enron, WorldCom, and Arthur
Back during the 2000 campaign, Bush and Cheney took
pains to brag about their CEO credentials. We've
since learned exactly what kind of real world skills
the pair picked up: fudging, manipulating, wheedling
government contracts and favors, and generally working
the system for all it's worth. Bush and Cheney have
been schooled in a corporate culture that believes
success is achieved by exploiting the government, the
economy, and the environment. They have brought that
same culture to the White House. To them the national
treasury is a personal piggy bank they use to quietly
reward the Haliburtons, Enrons, and the same CEOs they
have so loudly attacked in the media.
In 2004 we need genuine leadership in Washington. We
don't need more quick-fix schemes or lopsided tax
cuts. With four more years of George W. practicing
Reaganomics II we could wake up one morning on the
economic endangered nations list. Deficits and debt
could strangle our economy for the next generation;
and all but the wealthy will have a tough time making
ends meet. John Kerry has demonstrated a willingness
to confront these painful realities. On overall
economic policy, he offers qualities indispensable to
genuine leadership for America - patience, fairness,
candor, and vision. We need an administration that
understands and believes in coherent, comprehensive
and equitable policies that promote sustainable
economic growth - and, on that count, Democrats have
the winning record.
Arthur Blaustein was chairman of the President's
National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity
during the Carter administration. He is a professor
at the University of California, Berkeley, where he
teaches social and economic policy. His most recent
books are Make a Difference and The American Promise.
Reprinted by permission of the author, September 19,2004 LA Times.