It’s Not the Economy, Stupid

The Republicans ran on terrorism and the Democrats ran on the economy. The Republicans won.

This election result — beyond a tribute to Bush’s courage in risking his reputation by campaigning hard for his men and women — is the latest illustration of a trend throughout the world. Candidates who focus on the economy, particularly from center and left parties, end up losing elections, while those who orient their campaigns around values issues usually prevail.

In France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Britain, Norway, Denmark and a host of other countries, the candidates who stressed non-economic issues won, while those whose slogan was “it’s the economy, stupid” lost — even as the global recession mired their national economies in relative stagnation.

Voters have learned that the political process has little control over the economy. In 1992, Bill Clinton could power his campaign to the White House by focusing “like a laser beam” on the economy. But no longer. Now voters realize what they did not understand then: That the U.S. economy is buffeted by global markets, central banks and international financiers. If you want to see anybody about the economy in Washington, D.C., get your picture taken at the White House and then go meet with Alan Greenspan.

The defeat of the Democrats and the almost unprecedented boost for the president’s party in a midterm election should put to death, once and for all, economically centered campaigns. When one party or the other tries to use a slumping economy to its advantage, it is shooting blanks with the voters.

The second big reason for the Democratic debacle was the contrasting images of the two parties in the last week of combat. For the Republicans, the image was of a fighting young president, taking to the country to defend his administration and to protect the nation at a time of peril. For the Democrats, the poster boy was former Vice President Walter Mondale — the headline of the last week. Represented by an elderly, spent force, the party seemed to renege on the repositioning of the ’90s as it embraced a tax-and-spend liberal, never popular even in his heyday. Mondale not only cost the Democrats the seat in Minnesota, he may well have played a role in presenting an unacceptable image for the party nationally.

On issues, the Democrats went to the well once too often, trying to squeeze one more victory out of the shopworn issues of prescription drugs for the elderly, HMO regulation and protection of Social Security. This constellation of issues got the Democratic Senate candidates through the Monica election of 1998 and the Bush victory of 2000, but they had run out of gas by 2002. Voters know that both parties embrace variants of solutions to these problems and that only partisan gridlock is holding up their adoption, so they don’t see them as cutting edge or hot buttons any longer.

Finally, the dominant sentiment to emerge from Sept. 11 was a demand by the public for an end to partisan infighting. The constant bickering in Washington wore thin when America was under attack. It’s OK for Mom and Dad to fight all the time, but not when the rent is overdue and the eviction notice is on the door. This sentiment for national unity overshadowed the traditional demand for checks and balances that dominates voter decisions in off-year elections. Less interested in restraining presidential power than in ending the running partisan feud in Washington, the voters decided to empower their president to solve their problems.

But, beyond all of these reasons lies the often overlooked personal charisma of President Bush. He got fewer votes than Gore in 2000 and his victory was tainted. But in 2002, he removed that taint and demonstrated a depth and breadth of national appeal that confounded his critics and left the rest of us awed. He gambled big. He won big. He had guts and he pulled the elections out.

Dick Morris, the author of “Power Plays: Win or Lose” (Regan Books, $25.95), is a former political consultant to President Bill Clinton, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Mexican President Vincente Fox and other political figures.