The Magazine

WHEN THE ECONOMY TURNS

Feb 1, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 19 • By DAVID FRUM
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Everything will be different eighteen months from now. It's one of the oldest rules of politics, and also one of the hardest to remember. The present is so real, so glaring; the future so murky, so contingent. Who could believe in 1991 that the triumph in the Gulf would immediately fade? Or that the recession would end before Clinton's inauguration? And as Clinton ascended the rostrum of the House on Tuesday to boast of the country's wealth, take the cheers of his party, and bask in his skyscraping poll numbers, it seemed equally far-fetched to imagine that anything could tarnish his amazing political success.


Certainly the Republicans who replied to the State of the Union seemed unable to imagine it. Jennifer Dunn and Steve Largent delivered two of the most abject speeches ever to make a late-night viewer wince -- first denying that the impeachment of a president for multiple felonies ought to concern the American people very much and then implicitly apologizing for having impeached him.


The Dunn and Largent speeches seemed to take for granted that the salient political fact of the next election cycle will be the continuing overwhelming popularity of Bill Clinton. And of course it is possible that in 2000 the president will be as popular as Ronald Reagan was in 1988. But is it not equally possible that the Republicans are once again getting ready to fight the last war?


The Republicans were hammered in 1996 because they had started and lost a budget fight with President Clinton. So they entered the 1998 election cycle determined never to wage another budget fight -- only to get hammered again in 1998, as the federal surplus piled up and high-income voters revolted against the Republicans' unwillingness to press for broad tax relief.


In the aftermath of 1998 and with the acquittal of the president looming, the GOP is buzzing with advice from friends and foes alike as to how to reposition the party for the 2000 election. That advice tends to build on the premise that the country's condition in eighteen months will be essentially what it is now. Yes, many economists are predicting something of a slowdown in 1999. But with the stock market roaring, interest rates plunging, and the Asian, Russian, and Latin American financial crises a faraway and confusing menace, those same economists have decided that the 1999 slowdown will probably be only a prelude to the recovery of 2000.


And maybe that's right too. But here's something to contemplate: The U.S. economy has been growing for more than six years, since the middle of 1992. It's sixteen years since the end of the last severe recession. Question: What happens to American politics if the economy turns?


The cynical answer is: oh, nothing much. The Clinton administration's critics have so often predicted its imminent destruction -- from the recession that was supposed to follow the 1993 tax hike, from the White-water and campaign-finance scandals, from public reaction against a humiliating foreign policy -- that by now we tend to assume nothing short of the finger of God pointing to Clinton himself as the cause of tidal waves, typhoons, and locusts could do much to damage him.


But just for a moment, let's try the crazy experiment of imagining that Clinton is vulnerable -- if not to proven charges of criminality, then to economic disappointment. What happens to him and to American politics if, despite the stock-market euphoria, the East Asian, Russian, and Latin American depressions do crimp the American economy this year or the next? U.S. exports, especially high-tech and agricultural exports, are already tumbling -- by some 20 percent to the worst-hit market, East Asia. Meanwhile imports are rising, as the collapse of currencies from the Thai baht to the Canadian dollar slashes the price of goods made in those countries. This puts pressure on American manufacturers to reduce their own costs, by, for example, laying off workers. The United Steelworkers and the big steelmakers have already formed a coalition, "Stand Up for Steel," to lobby for even thicker barriers to Japanese and South Korean metal. Clinton (naturally) pandered to them in his State of the Union address. Subsidizing U.S. jobs, however, aside from its other demerits, will prolong and aggravate the slump overseas and enlarge the threat that slump poses to the U.S. economy.


A potentially even more menacing danger is taking form across the Atlantic. On January 1, the European currencies ceased to move freely against one another and were fixed relative to one another for the three years remaining until they are scheduled to disappear and be replaced by the single European currency. Fix any of those rates too high, and it will have a deflationary impact; fix any too low, and it will tend to create inflation. And since eleven currencies are joining the European Monetary Union, there were fifty-five exchange rates for the Euro-wizards to set accurately, creating many, many opportunities for error -- and further international monetary instability.


None of this necessarily means that the End is Nigh for the U.S. economy. It's possible the United States may muddle through, with no worse shock than a slowing of growth in 1999. On the other hand, the outlook is not exactly confidence-inspiring. And an economic downturn would have considerable political significance.


The 1990s have been an unusually serene time for the American economy and thus an unusually uneventful period in American politics. It's not true, as President Clinton likes to say, that this is "the best economy in thirty years." Actually, the 1992-98 expansion has had the lowest average growth rate of any since the end of World War II. What it has been is an unusually untroubled expansion. Compare the Clinton prosperity to the Reagan boom. The expansion of the 1980s began in 1983, just as the great surge of people born in the peak years of the baby boom, 1957-62, were looking for their first jobs. The number of women seeking full-time work peaked in the 1980s too, and immigration from war-torn Central America and an oil-busted Mexico surged.


With so many workers to absorb, the economy of the 1980s was always attended by relatively slack labor markets. Not until 1987 did the unemployment rate push below 6 percent, and in only a single month of the Reagan boom -- March 1989 -- did unemployment fall as low as 5 percent. The cohort entering the labor market in the mid-1990s, however, was the small generation born in the 1960s and early 1970s. As a result, even though the economy grew less fast in the 1990s than it did in the 1980s, and even though real interest rates were not much lower, unemployment rates fell much further: Since May 1997, they have remained between 4.6 percent and 5.0 percent.


These numbers -- with a little help from news media that have inexplicably lost interest in such once-favorite topics as homelessness, deindustrialization, and the (still-growing) gap between the incomes of the top 5 percent and bottom 20 percent of households -- may explain why voters have been consistently more likely to say that Bill Clinton's relatively sluggish America is on the "right track" than they were to say so of Ronald Reagan's much more dynamic America. That feeling of economic well-being, in turn, has protected Clinton from being wounded by his administration's scandals and crimes. So far anyway. But now suppose that those happy conditions were to end.


Since 1994, Clinton has offered the Democratic party a devilish bargain: Accept and defend policies you hate (welfare reform, the Defense of Marriage Act), condone and excuse crimes (perjury, campaign finance abuses), and I'll deliver you the executive branch of government. But this bargain can hold only so long as Bill Clinton's grip on the presidency does. If that grip falters -- if a weak economy threatens to cost the Democrats the White House in 2000 -- the Clinton bargain will cease looking like clever politics and start looking like a disgusting betrayal of Democratic principles.


Nor will Clinton's standing in the country be more secure. Again since 1994, Clinton has survived and even thrived by deftly balancing between right and left. He has assuaged the left by continually proposing bold new programs -- the expansion of Medicare to 55 year olds, a national day-care program, the reversal of welfare reform, the hooking up to the Internet of every classroom, and now the socialization of the means of production via Social Security. And he has placated the right by dropping every one of these programs as soon as he proposed it. Clinton makes speeches, Rubin and Greenspan make policy; the left gets words, the right gets deeds; and everybody is content.


But if unemployment lines were growing, how long would the AFL-CIO and Clinton's supporters in black America stomach this president's hands-off economics? If incomes and asset values were tumbling, would middle-class Americans continue to yawn at Clinton's penchant for dreaming up new ways to spend their money? Worse, for all of Clinton's invocations of a "Third Way," it's quite clear that in hard times, the Third Way rapidly deteriorates into the old hardhat-and-steamshovel First Way. Look at the advice the Clinton economic team is administering to depressed Japan: Build highways! Dams! Pave over the entire island! It's as if they'd been clipping Felix Rohatyn articles from the 1981 New York Review of Books and saving them for just this emergency. Clinton's Third Way is a skiff that floats only in balmy weather.


Nor is it just the Democrats who need to worry about the politics of a downturn. The successful politics of the 1990s for both parties have been symbolic politics. For Democrats: V-chips, school uniforms, free cell phones for community-watch organizations, a patients' bill of rights, whoop-whooping against the evils of tobacco. For Republicans: the balanced budget amendment, the gauzy weepiness of the '96 convention, the congressional reforms in the Contract With America, whoop-whooping against the evils of marijuana. These gestures have achieved their political purpose because in good times, Americans expect relatively little of their government.


In bad times, however, micropolitics suddenly looks absurdly inadequate. Remember the fate of George Bush's "thousand points of light" in the recession of 1991? Or how silly Jimmy Carter's cardigan sweater looked after Iran took Americans hostage? In bad times, Americans rally to big ideas: to an Eisenhower who promises to "go to Korea," to a Kennedy who promises to "get the country moving again," to a Reagan who promises a 30 percent tax cut, and -- yes -- to a Clinton who promises health insurance for all that can never be taken away. That same opportunity may well beckon in 2000.


There are at least three grand issues or themes whose politics could look radically different in the wake of a slump: Social Security, taxation, and Clinton's personal style.


Social Security first. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists still posts on its cover a doomsday clock, graphically illustrating how close the world supposedly stands to nuclear Armageddon. It may be time for the board of governors of the Social Security system to borrow this attention-getting device. The crisis in Social Security is due in less than 10 years: in June 2008, when the first of the baby boomers turns 65. What should be done? President Clinton's State of the Union proposals are probably gambits: It seems incredible that he could believe that any Congress would let the government buy up industry. Clinton's main idea seems to be that if he can pile up big enough budget surpluses now, he will reduce the strain on the system in a decade. This squirrel-in-winter approach to pension finance is laughed at by most economists, but it has helped Clinton achieve his real goal -- avoiding an across-the-board tax-cut -- while (as a bonus) making it seem as if he were actually taking some action on the crisis.


Now suppose the economy turns down. The budget surplus -- which owes its existence to the fantastic increase in federal tax revenues of the past few years (up from $ 1.154 trillion in fiscal 1993 to $ 1.743 trillion estimated in fiscal 1999, a 51 percent increase, with much, much more projected for the years ahead) -- will shrink, even vanish. If it does, so do the Clinton administration's not-very-convincing-to-start-with claims to be doing something about Social Security. Clinton's verbal formulas worked politically because they gave people the comforting sense that somebody was keeping a careful eye on their financial future, and the mountain of money in the surplus was the tangible proof. No surplus, no proof. No surplus, and all the allegedly radical ideas of those who actually want the problem solved rather than evaded suddenly cease to look so radical after all.


Now think about taxes. In 1999, federal revenues will exceed 20 percent of gross domestic product for the first time since 1945. (Federal revenues were only 17 percent of gross domestic product when George Bush left office.) Federal, state, and local taxes combined now consume 40 percent of the income of the median family: an all-time record, more even than during World War II. Unlike in the last period of tax creep, the 1970s, middle-class wage-earning households have been insulated from the rising burden of the Clinton years by a proliferation of new, targeted, phased-out tax benefits. These benefits have minimized middle-class tax resentment: There has been no 1990s version of Proposition 13. And with business conditions seemingly so favorable, it's hard to convince Americans of the value of tax cutting for the economy in general, as Bob Dole found out when his promise of a 15 percent across-the-board tax cut so badly flopped.


If business conditions were not so favorable, however, the Clinton tax increases would not be so readily ignored. People get more anxious about where their dollars are going when they feel they have fewer of them. More urgently, in a recession the deflationary impact of high taxes will not be as easily brushed aside as it was in 1996. We've all watched the Japanese economy trapped for half a decade within a seemingly inescapable recession by its government's unwillingness to significantly lower tax rates: It's easy to imagine such a thing happening here -- and easier still to explain why it should not.


Finally there's the Clinton style. Probably not since John F. Kennedy has a president so influenced the way other politicians dress, talk, and emote, and not only in the United States, but around the world. Think of Gerhard Schroder and Tony Blair as much as George W. Bush and Newt Gingrich. (Well, where else did Gingrich get the idea to pose for his last book in hiking boots and open-necked shirt?) But unlike Kennedy, this much-mimicked president is not much admired: One of those polls he lives by, CNN-Gallup's poll for January 8-10, shows that by a 55-42 margin, the public does not respect him as a man. A "Kennedyesque" politician is glamorous and witty; a "Clintonian" politician is a shameless liar.


The Clintonian style is pervasive because it seems to have achieved fantastic results: Here's a politician who -- if the law were strictly enforced -- might easily be in the slammer, and instead he boasts 70+ percent job-approval ratings. It's tempting to infer from the Clintons' repeated success in overcoming the most gaping self-inflicted wounds that there's something about this style that is especially well suited to a postindustrial economy, to a female-majority electorate, to -- well, name whatever fancy theory you like. And it's equally tempting (or depressing, depending on your point of view) to believe that the Clinton style will therefore be with us forever.


But again: the politics of Clintonism may look very different if the economics do. If eighteen months from now we are all talking about mistakes that were unnecessarily stumbled into, avoidable dangers that were inattentively not avoided, tough but urgent decisions that were evaded or fudged -- we may find that about the last thing any ambitious pol wants is to be confused with the man whose most quoted remark is destined to be, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."


This is all speculation, of course. Clinton has enjoyed amazing luck throughout his career, from his escape from the draft to the stock market rally that immediately followed his disastrous August 17 speech. His luck may yet hold just long enough to get him out of town with most of his secrets still intact and his job-approval ratings still at record highs. Since 1995, the coin has come up "heads" just about every time that Clinton has tossed it. Who knows? It may come up "heads" a dozen times more. Personally, I wouldn't bet my life on it. But Clinton has.




David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.