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Bush and Gore still don't grasp the economic issue

The day the Democrats released their basic economic platform for 2000, Al Gore's running mate, Joe Lieberman, appropriately enough wound up his campaigning here in President Clinton's home town. Eight years ago, the slogan on the wall of Clinton's Little Rock headquarters read, "It's the economy, stupid." This year, as then, the Democrats need the pocketbook issue if they are going to win.

It ought to be easy for them. The statistics recited by Gore and Lieberman in matching speeches last week are impressive indeed. "During the last eight years," as Lieberman put it, "we have created more than 4-million new businesses, 22-million new jobs, the lowest inflation in a generation, the lowest African-American and Hispanic unemployment rate in history and the strongest economy in the 224-year history of the United States of America." He could have added that real incomes for even the poorest Americans began to improve and the poverty rate declined.

And yet, Republican nominee George W. Bush is managing to hold his own on the economic issue.

There are some explanations that Washington Post reporter Dan Balz and I heard when we were out interviewing voters in some of the battleground states, before the two party conventions.

For one thing, the economy has been going so well for so long, some people are taking prosperity for granted. By some measures, the United States has experienced only six months of recession in the last 17 years _ the short dip that contributed to Clinton's victory in 1992.

For another, many can claim a hand in the writing of this economic success story. Impartial observers have noted that the budget deal President Bush negotiated with a Democratic Congress in 1990 _ for which he paid a high price among rebellious Republicans _ actually began the long march back from the record Reagan-era deficits.

The progress accelerated after the first Clinton budget passed Congress in 1993 over unanimous Republican opposition. But it was not until the Republicans took control of Congress in 1995 that the goal of a balanced budget came into view _ a goal that was sealed in the agreement between Clinton and GOP congressional leaders in 1997.

The voters Balz and I met are also aware _ many of them _ of the one constant through this whole period, the stunningly adept performance of the Federal Reserve Board and its chairman, Alan Greenspan.

So when it comes to handing out gold stars for this record prosperity, Gore is pretty far down the list of likely recipients. When the Democratic National Convention gave Clinton an opportunity to tell the nation how Gore had contributed to this record, he failed to do so.

Since Los Angeles, Gore has muddied the waters further by wrapping his economic message in the populist language favored by pollster Stan Greenberg and media adviser Bob Shrum. Gore is telling voters two contradictory things about where he thinks the economy is.

Upbeat Al, in classic incumbent fashion, says, metaphorically, "You never had it so good," and literally, "You ain't see nothin' yet."

But Downbeat Al complains that the big corporations _ especially oil, drug, insurance and tobacco companies and HMOs _ are ripping people off and profiteering at public expense.

The two messages are actually aimed at separate groups of swing voters, both predominantly female _ one group married and relatively secure and the other single and struggling. But when merged in the same speech, the two themes sound muddled and confusing.

Bush's message is simpler _ but perhaps more fundamentally flawed. He is saying that the good times will roll if he is elected, and promising that a big chunk of the growing government surpluses will go back to the voters in the form of tax cuts. But his top-heavy tax cuts have looked politically vulnerable ever since John McCain dissected them in New Hampshire last winter, and Bush strategists can offer no evidence that swing voters prefer tax cuts to a steady whittling away at the national debt.

So they have fallen back on saying you can do everything at once _ shore up Social Security and Medicare, finance more spending on the schools, pay down the debt and still cut taxes across the board.

That proposition seems dubious to many voters, as questionable as Gore's claim that he can fit all his new spending proposals into a balanced budget. And so the economic issue still eludes either candidate's firm grasp.

+ David Broder is a Washington Post columnist. +

Washington Post Writers Group