Economy identified as Bush's Achilles' heel

Posted: Wednesday, July 31, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Potential Democratic candidates for president may have been reluctant to criticize President Bush's war against terrorism, but they've shown no such hesitation to criticize his efforts on the economy.

The president is far more vulnerable on that subject, polls suggest.

Veteran political analyst Charles Jones suggested that ''the economy is the best source of criticizing any administration'' in turbulent financial times.

The steady stream of bad news of late -- from the corporate accounting scandals to the roller coaster stock market -- has emboldened Democrats. They've attacked Bush on foreign policy occasionally, but it's tricky with his approval rating for the war on terrorism at 70 percent.

But the stumbling economy has seen two months of declines in stock prices. And just over four in 10 people approve of Bush's handling of the economy.

For Democrats to take aim at the economy ''isn't really risky,'' said Jones, a presidential scholar retired from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who added: ''If the economy improves, nothing will stop the Bush administration.''

Democrats have been quick to criticize.

Al Gore, the 2000 Democratic nominee, said Thursday: ''We have abruptly shifted in one year from open-ended surpluses to open-ended deficits. That did not happen by accident nor was it the result of Sept. 11. It is the natural and predicted result of the economic policies of the Bush-Cheney administration.''

All the leading Democrats have been taking their shots.

n Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has called current Bush policies ''voodoo economics,'' stealing the phrase Bush's father used to describe Ronald Reagan's policies.

n North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said ''there is a general lack of confidence'' in this economic team.

n Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry called the Bush team an ''oil industry administration.''

n Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, one of the most pro-business Democrats, said ''there is a large cloud hanging over the head'' of Bush because of lingering questions about his handling of stock sales when he was an oil executive.

n Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle recently referred to the Bush economic philosophy as a ''laissez-faire'' attitude that helped create the current climate.

n House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt said the president offers ''harsh rhetoric'' while ''delaying and watering down whatever reforms come out of Congress.''

All the Democrats will be watching closely to see how the Bush administration enforces legislation Congress sent him Thursday creating stiff penalties for corporate fraud. Gephardt predicted recently that Democrats would make major gains in the House if current economic conditions persist.

Republican National Committee Chairperson Marc Racicot said at the RNC's summer meeting that Democrats ''aren't really interested in helping the economy grow'' by getting behind GOP-backed measures such as making the Bush tax cut permanent, expanding trade and passing an energy bill.

''They feel the only way they can win is if the economy is disrupted,'' Racicot said. ''Shame on them.''

Five of the seven most frequently mentioned potential presidential candidates traveled to New York last weekend to address the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which has been key to Democratic presidential politics for the last decade. The two Democrats missing were Gore, who had other business commitments, and Dean, who planned to be on the West Coast meeting party activists.

The others made their best economic pitch to the group that refers to itself as ''the New Democrats,'' who advocate blending a pro-business view with a traditional party message that still appeals to labor unions and other core Democrats.

''The most specific problem they have is that they're not Bill Clinton,'' said Republican spokesman Jim Dyke, explaining it takes a very skilled politician to blend the messages.

These Democrats gave it their best shot with DLC officials like founder and chief executive Al From watching closely.

''We need to figure out how we deal with this corporate governance scandal and we need to have a long-term economic strategy,'' said From, who said the 1990s strategy of fiscal discipline, expanded trade and investment in people and technology seemed to work fine.

''In the last year and a half, we've seen that formula undermined, and the consequences have been disastrous,'' said From.

Will Lester covers politics and polling for The Associated Press.

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