George W. Bush isn't running against just Al Gore. Bush is also running against Eddie Bauer. And Ann Taylor. And, as it turns out, Starvin' Marvin.
Bush, in other words, is finally facing the full weight of trying to oust the party in the White House at a time when pockets are full and stores are crowded.
Bush's visit to this affluent Chicago suburb for a Labor Day parade last week gave him an up-close look at the problem. As Bush marched down the stylish main street, Kim Matuck, a sales representative, was explaining why she planned to vote for Gore. She gestured toward the Starbucks and Eddie Bauer and Ann Taylor stores along the route; none of them were there eight years ago when Bill Clinton and Gore took office. Matuck's husband's business, she said, was thriving. Low interest rates had allowed them to trade up to a bigger home. She hears Bush talk about the need for a "fresh start" in America and she wonders what exactly is the problem he's aiming to fix.
"I like what we've had the last eight years, and I just am very worried about change," she says. "Why go in a different direction when things are going as well as they are?"
It's not just cul-de-sac families in suburbs like this who are doing well enough to ask that question. In a new book, the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, reports that after years of stagnation, incomes grew sharply for families at all income levels from 1995-1998. It also found that wages, after declining in inflation-adjusted terms for most workers during the 1980s and early 1990s, not only spiked from 1995 to 1998 but increased more for low- than high-income workers.
Which probably helps explain the news at Starvin' Marvin, a discount gas station along the highway in Pontiac, Mich., that Bush's motorcade barreled past en route to a rally last week. Out in front, Marvin has posted a big sign that reads: "We now offer cappuccino."
When prosperity has spread to the point that cut-rate gas stations in a town as gritty as Pontiac offer upscale coffee drinks, you know it's a tough year to argue for change.
All of this is worth remembering as the long knives in Washington are unsheathed against Bush and his campaign staff. As Gore has narrowly passed Bush in most of the latest national surveys, the same GOP establishment that anointed the Texas governor last year is bemoaning him now.
Bush has made his share of mistakes, especially recently. But overall, he's run an effective and sophisticated campaign. If anything, Bush has been more competitive than might be expected in an economy this strong. Bush is just learning how hard it is to beat the incumbent party when virtually every economic and social trend is pointing in the right direction.
Prosperity hampers Bush in at least two distinct respects. Matuck embodies the most obvious challenge: When times are good, there's less of a demand for change. Whether voters credit Clinton and Gore for the strong economy, many are reluctant to gamble the good times by shifting direction.
Craig Barenbrugge, a mortgage banker standing near Matuck at the Labor Day parade, typifies that group. "Without doing any great research on either of the candidates," he says, "my initial reaction is to stick with the status quo."
More subtly, prosperity hurts Bush by shrinking the demand for tax cuts _ the centerpiece of his domestic agenda. With voters feeling less economically squeezed, polls consistently show that the vast majority would rather spend the federal surplus on Medicare, Social Security and paying down the national debt than the across-the-board tax cut Bush is touting.
Compounding Bush's problem, prosperity has already allowed Washington to ease whatever pressure might have developed for a tax cut. In his stump speech, Bush belittles Gore's promise of a targeted tax cut by implying that the administration had failed to deliver on its 1992 pledge to provide relief to the middle class.
"Eight years ago, you said you were going to give the middle class a tax cut, and you're having to say it again," Bush thunders.
But in the 1997 balanced-budget deal, Clinton and the GOP Congress agreed on a significant middle-class tax cut centered on a $500-per-child tax credit. As a result, the Congressional Budget Office calculates that all but the most affluent families are now paying a smaller share of their income in federal income taxes than when Clinton took office.
Indeed, the conservative Tax Foundation recently calculated that the 1997 law "reduced federal . . . income taxes on the median family so dramatically that federal income taxes as a percentage of total income were about the same in 1998 as they were in 1955."
For most of this year, personal doubts about Gore's strength and leadership prevented him from fully capitalizing on these positive developments. Those doubts crystallized in a single number. Until recently, Gore was winning only about half of the voters who said they believed the country was on the right track. That's a much smaller share of satisfied voters than the party holding the White House usually attracts.
But when Gore successfully presented himself as his "own man" at the Democratic convention, it was as if he punched a hole in a dam that blocked him from the rising tide of economic satisfaction. Now more of the benefits are flowing toward him.
Gore's share of the vote among voters content with the country's direction has increased in the most recent polls to 60 percent or more _ even as the number of Americans who consider the country on the right track is soaring to some of the highest levels ever seen. Gore, in short, is capturing a bigger piece of a growing pool, a dangerous trend for Bush.
Bush still has significant assets in this campaign: a sense of unease about the nation's moral course, personal disappointment in Clinton and lingering doubts about Gore's sincerity. And the two men are battling fiercely for working-class families that still feel economically squeezed even if they've gained ground since 1993.
But for many Americans, there is simply little reason to risk a change in times this good. Matuck's plans for Labor Day afternoon were a measure of what Bush is up against.
"When we leave here," she said with a smile as Bush passed in the parade, "we're going to Pottery Barn."
The current of prosperity carrying her toward the cash register is the same one that's edged Gore, for now, past his rival.
Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.
Los Angeles Times