Political Capital with John Harwood

GOP "Happy Hour" Is Democrats' Opportunity?


In their interview this morning with my colleague Dylan Ratigan, President Bush's economic advisers emphasized all that was going right with the American economy: low inflation, a strong job market, continued growth and booming exports, whether those exports are driven by a weaker dollar or not. They downplayed the impact of what's going wrong, asserting that the battered housing market and mortgage mess won't tip the economy into recession.

Those are fine, familiar arguments for any White House to make. They have the ring of truth for the substantial chunk of the American population that is indeed doing well, which represents an important part of the GOP's political coalition.

The problem for Republican candidates--more so than a president heading out of office--is that substantial chunk is not a majority. Polls show that most Americans disapprove Bush's handling of the economy. Most feel anxious about a range of problems on the economic horizon: shaky pension benefits; rising health care expenses, both for those who have health coverage and for the 47-million who don't; wage growth that hasn't kept pace with productivity increases.

Just as problematic is unhappiness over trade policy. That's a bipartisan concern, as shown by our recent NBC-Wall Street Journal poll in which six in 10 Republicans pronounced foreign trade a bad thing for the U.S. economy.

Economic Summit Reaction

Republican presidential candidates, talking to their party's base, mostly echo Team Bush's upbeat assessment of the economic situation. But former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has warned that too much happy talk could cause average families to tune the GOP out.

Even former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, amid his cheerleading for the power of optimism, criticized the Bush administration in our recent CNBC-MSNBC-WSJ economic debate for failing to negotiate good trade agreements.

Those are arguments the Democrats will make at high volume in the 2008 homestretch. And right now, despite the power of the White House bully pulpit, they are winning the argument with the public.

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