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The Worstest Hyperbole in the World--Ever!

Democrats are having trouble taking advantage of the soft economy because it's nowhere near as bad as they say it is.

12:00 AM, Oct 23, 2002 • By FRED BARNES
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WHILE PREPARING to tape a TV show recently, my colleague Mort Kondracke and I discovered Senate majority leader Tom Daschle was being interviewed in an adjacent Fox News studio. After his interview Daschle kindly agreed to come by and chat with us for a few minutes. What were Democrats proposing, we asked, to improve an economy suffering from slow growth, stagnant capital investment, and weak job creation? Daschle mentioned two things: increasing the minimum wage (now $5.15) and extending eligibility for unemployment benefits.

His answer touches on one of the reasons Democrats are encountering such difficulty in making the economy a salient and productive issue against Republicans in the midterm election. That reason: Democrats simply don't have an economic agenda. The minimum wage and unemployment insurance are Democratic staples, but they are more likely to prolong an economic slowdown than end it. In the short run at least, a minimum wage hike will reduce jobs, and extending jobless benefits is likely to extend joblessness, as the unemployed wait until their bennies have expired before seriously seeking or taking a job.

True, House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt has proposed a $75 billion tax rebate for low-income Americans, in hopes they'll spend it quickly and juice up the economy. That might help, but the remainder of his economic plan includes nothing to increase growth and jobs and nothing to aid suffering stock market investors. He would raise taxes on corporations with offshore operations.

Lack of an agenda, however, isn't the only factor preventing Democrats from effectively exploiting the current soft economy. Another is the mix of unemployment and inflation--the misery index. It normally takes dramatic rises in both of these to stir voter anger over the economy. But unemployment has dipped the past two months, settling at 5.6 percent, roughly half the rate in 1982 when Democrats made strong gains in the off-year election. And inflation is all but non-existent.

Then there's the exaggeration problem. If there's a single issue voters understand well, it's the economy. They experience it personally every day. So telling them economic growth is the worst in a half-century, as Democrats have in a TV ad broadcast by a party front group, simply won't fly. Voters know better. And telling them economic conditions are just like 1982, with its deep recession, won't resonate either. But that's what Democratic pollster Mark Mellman is arguing these days.

In speeches, Daschle and Gephardt do the same thing: talk about the economy in language that doesn't match the economic situation--or even come close. In truth, the economy is expected to have grown by about 3 percent in the third quarter of 2002 and may grow at a slightly faster clip this quarter. But even if it slips, we don't face anything like the kind of Depression-level conditions that Democrats are yapping about. Most everyone who goes to the polls on November 5 will know that.

My guess is Democrats have sought to exploit the economic issue on the cheap. It's impossible to get congressional Democrats to agree on a bailout for beleaguered investors. So that's out. They can't propose a cut in individual income tax rates, or corporate rates, because most Democrats oppose that. And they can't propose a boost in individual or corporate rates because that would be unpopular--and would actually harm the economy. That leaves relying on old Democratic issues with little economic impact, and on hyperbole.

Now you can contend that Republicans don't have an agenda either. That's partially true. They have a credible plan to help investors that they haven't done much to promote or push through Congress. And they have the Bush tax cuts of last year to fall back on. But they don't need a whopping program to tout since they don't agree with wild Democratic claims about how bad the economy is. With election day two weeks away, the voters, while hardly thrilled about the weak recovery from the 2001 recession, don't either.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.