WASHINGTON - Oh, goodness, it's deja vu all over again - except that President Bush is too clued in to go shopping for socks at JC Penney.
Like his father before him, who tried to tell skeptical voters in 1992 that if they just stayed the course, all would be well (he went shopping to prove it), President Bush can feel in his bones that the economy is improving. With righteous indignation, he wonders why people don't believe the recovery is hot. Never mind that he gets free health care, that his daughters are out of college, their tuition long since paid, and that he hasn't pumped his own gas for years.
Now comes John Kerry, the Democrat from Massachusetts, who says he feels the pain of the middle class - a middle class that is plunging into bankruptcy at scandalous rates, postponing medical appointments, spending retirement money to send children to community college, losing benefits in the workplace, and shortening trips to the grocery store to splurge at the gas station. Never mind that, if elected president, he'd be the wealthiest man ever to live in the White House, because his wife would be the wealthiest first lady.
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan says not to worry, that inflation is not rearing its misshapen head. So he's going to start slowly, but inexorably, to raise interest rates. (As if we haven't kept our heads above water by refinancing our mortgages and living off debt we'll have to pay off some day.)
The only thing we can do is take what each man says with a grain of salt and demand more meat.
Mr. Greenspan does not know if inflation is barreling down the road at us or not. That's why, he said, if it comes, he'll be ready to smite it; if, like an alien in a horror flick, it starts growing faster than the Fed thinks it will.
Mr. Bush can cite all the statistics his speech-writers can stuff into an average 30-minute speech about rising manufacturing productivity, wages that are 5 cents an hour higher, drug cards for seniors, more service-sector jobs, the benefits of outsourcing jobs abroad, and happy investors.
The fact is, too many don't feel his elation in their bones or wallets.
As economists say, we feel squeezed.
But Mr. Kerry takes an equal risk by preaching, as the Bushies call it, "gloom and doom" economics, insisting we're much worse off than four years ago, that economic indicators are grim and that we're fools to be optimistic about the future if Mr. Bush stays in the White House.
He and Mr. Bush are playing clever games with the data; both are right and wrong: The economy is improving, but not for all.
Americans know that a president, any president, has little to do to make the economy boom. Most of it is luck and timing (and not saying something dumb about the dollar). Presidents, however, can make things much worse. As former President Bush noted, quite correctly, the main contribution is to "do no harm" to the economy.
Mr. Kerry has yet to say how he would pay for all he wants to do for us. How would he finance medical bills over $50,000, help 82 million of us who had no insurance at some point in the last two years, pay for better schools and decent child care and a golden sunset in our retirement?
Mr. Bush has yet to explain why the soaring deficit - as he pays for war in Iraq and the tax cut - isn't mortgaging the future of our children and why so many people can't find good jobs and why under his watch the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.
Mr. Bush is being inherently dishonest when he refuses to talk about Social Security. If he is re-elected, that's one of the first things he will be forced to tackle. And it's inevitable that he will have to raise the payroll tax or cut Social Security and Medicare benefits.
Mr. Kerry is dreaming if he thinks voters have decided he's the answer. When Mr. Kerry thunders, "I'm running for president because I want an economy that strengthens and expands the middle class, not one that squeezes it," do our hearts beat faster?
Mr. Bush is whistling in the dark if he thinks voters aren't worried. But he's right about rising consumer spending - we're spending what we don't have, and we're not saving for the future.
We have months before November to assess each man (and that fly in Mr. Kerry's ointment, Ralph Nader). But they must do a better job of writing prescriptions for our economic ills. We need to have our socks knocked off by the truth.
If we settle for bromides, as we have so often, shame on us.
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