Democrats are in a tizzy over news that the economy grew 7.2 percent in the last quarter, the fastest such growth since 1984. "Oh no!" was their secret, instant cry. "Does this mean we can’t blast Bush on the economy anymore – and if so, what does that do to our prospects in 2004?"
Let’s stipulate right here that Republicans remain the market leaders when it comes to praying for bad news that is good news for them politically.
(If I didn’t say this, right wing talk show hosts would seize on this column as proof that this liberal is revealing his party’s heart of darkness, when every grown-up knows both sides have partly dark hearts when it comes to winning. If you doubt what I’m saying, ask yourself why Republicans spent much of the 1990s preposterously trying to rebrand the Clinton Boom as the Reagan Boom).
But as Democrats scramble to digest what the growth figures mean, let me suggest that in this case the good news isn’t bad news for the party. Instead, it’s a blessing in disguise that will force Democrats to make their case for regime change at home with greater clarity and force.
For starters, despite one good quarter (if the numbers hold up when later revised), President Bush’s overall economic record will still be awful – and awful on a history-making scale. Bush will approach November 2004 with the worst record of job loss on his watch since Herbert Hoover.
Next, it’s no surprise that if you run huge budget deficits you can goose the economy for a time. Send defense spending through the roof and taxes through the floor and – voila! – you’ll pump demand and get some near-term growth.
The real problem is that Bush has used the legitimate need for short-run stimulus to enact long- term tax cuts aimed mostly at the best off. This strategy is a nefarious two-fer because it’s also designed to create long-term deficits that conservative ideologues can use to "starve the beast" of government. Bush’s perverse harnessing of short-run need to sell long-run insanity is what Democrats need to make the public understand.
Beyond this, Democrats need to make next year’s debate turn on rival visions for America, not near-term economic bumps. Democrats need to expose Bush’s "compassion" hoax for what it is – a rhetorical trick to con independent voters into believing that Bush isn’t a neanderthal like Newt.
But three years into his term, we can see President Bush’s domestic vision all too clearly. It’s an America where 45 to 50 million Americans are uninsured forever. A nation where the most disadvantaged children are systematically assigned the nation’s least qualified teachers in perpetuity. Where tens of millions of working families live in poverty as far as the eye can see.
Bush will try to disguise this vision – who wouldn’t? – but Democrats must expose it, in all its unsavory detail.
Democrats have a different vision, and this clash has to be the central domestic choice put to voters in 2004. Richard Gephardt puts it nicely: "We’re all in this together," he says, "whether you like it or not, whether you know it or not. What happens to some of us eventually effects all of us." It’s this conviction, this view of the world, that underlies deep commitments to student aid, to Social Security, and more. For all his pretty speeches, Bush’s choices reveal that his party thinks we’re more or less on our own.
This Bush ethic – that it’s every man for himself (championed ironically by the antithesis of the self-made man) – is reflected in the shocking greed and corruption that continues to be exposed at the highest levels of business. First Dick Grasso walked off with $140 million. Now come revelations about misdealing at major mutual funds. What sordid shoes will drop next?
The Democratic notion that we’re in this together, and need to protect ordinary Americans against the rot at the top, resonates today because it’s so true.
With all these potent themes to bring to a boil next year, Democrats should thus relax about the 7.2. A little economic good news is just that: good news. A year from now the kick in the pants it gave Democrats to sharpen their case will have been welcome.
Matthew Miller is a syndicated columnist and Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.