Guns and Butter

John Kerry tries to keep the focus on the economy — without much success.


John Kerry wrapped up a three-day tour of industrial communities through the Rust Belt–West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, crucial swing states all–promising policies to revitalize the hard-hit manufacturing sector. Kerry’s strategists warn that he needs to keep the focus on the economy, not Iraq, because Kerry, for all his military credentials, has yet to pass a threshold of credibility on national security. As one put it, “No matter how bad Bush does on the war and 9/11, just having voters think about it kills us.”

Some indicators show that the economy is improving, theoretically making it less of a winner for Kerry. But recent economic gains, such as they are, have been felt unevenly, and two questions remain unanswered: how do voters, especially in places like the electorally indispensable Rust Belt states, feel the economy is doing? And how big a factor is the economy for general election voters, relative to Iraq and the war on terror?

During his tour, Kerry that said Bush wants to summarize his administration’s economic plan in one word — jobs. “Instead of one word for George Bush’s economic plan, I’ve got three words: ‘Mission not accomplished.’ That’s the job for this country.” Kerry said manufacturing jobs have not been created during a single month of Bush’s presidency.

The problem for Kerry is that jobs and the economy may not be foremost on many voters’ -– much less the news media’s — minds right now. As an issue of importance to Americans, the economy is sometimes ranked at the top, and sometimes falls below Iraq and the war on terror. For instance, a recentWashington Post/ABC News Poll suggested that almost half of all Americans rank the war on terror or the situation in Iraq as the biggest concern, while the proportion who said the economy and jobs were most important has actually dropped in the last month—by 10 percentage points—to 26 percent.

On the other hand, a recent CNN/USA Today, survey said that 39 percent of voters say the economy is the most important issue when voting for the president, ahead of terrorism (cited as most important by 28 percent) and Iraq (22 percent). The poll also finds that significantly more Americans say Bush would do a good job in handling terrorism and the situation in Iraq than say that about Kerry, while slightly more people say Kerry would do a good job with the economy more than Bush.

Both polls give Bush a healthy 4 to 5 percent overall lead over Kerry.

And even if, as conventional wisdom might have it, the economy is important for voters, as the economic climate turns for the better it will begin to work in Bush’s favor as a campaign issue. Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said the creation of 759,000 jobs during the last seven months demonstrates that Bush’s economic policy is working.
Consumer confidence is also higher than it’s been in months.
The ABC/Money index is based on views of the current economy, personal finances and the buying climate. Thirty-six percent say the economy is in good shape, the biggest number since mid-February. Thirty-nine percent say it’s a good time to buy things. And 56 percent say their own finances are in good shape, only one point below average.

But not everybody is seeing these economic gains. In the Rust Belt states, Kerry may have more luck focusing on economic issues.
Those states may be hurting more than the rest of the country, given the decline of the manufacturing industries, which collectively lost nearly 500,000 jobs in the last four years.

As the Christian Science Monitor points out, Kerry visited places on his tour where jobs are scarce:

“Now, with Ohio considered a swing state in the 2004 election, Columbiana seems to be a swing county – the kind of place where John Kerry would expect to make inroads this week as he makes a three-day campaign tour through the Rust Belt. And Senator Kerry has a lot to harp on here. Unemployment is near 9 percent. More than 3 million manufacturing jobs were lost in the recession. And the steel industry is fuming at President Bush, who enacted foreign steel tariffs to protect the US industry, then lifted them 16 months earlier than promised.”

And Ohio, sometimes called the Florida of 2004 (along with Florida and a handful of other states), is a key state because it’s so evenly divided. Bush won the state’s 20 electoral votes by 3 percentage points in 2000, but the latest Ohio Poll has Bush and Kerry in a statistical dead heat. Bush also won West Virginia’s 5 votes 4 years ago by a margin of 6 points.
Pennsylvania, with 19 electoral votes, went for Gore in 2000, as did Michigan with 17 votes.

Still, jobs aren’t at the top of the news agenda; Iraq is. Kerry struggled to keep the focus on jobs for just the three days of his “Jobs First” bus tour. On every stop he had to field questions about Iraq, the war on terror, and his military record and antiwar activities three decades ago.

Kerry was described by aides as furious with the attacks on his military service and antiwar protests and has resolved to fight back — even if it interferes with his campaign strategy.

As the Washington Post points out, it could be devastating to Kerry if he can’t change the subject:

“Some Democrats worry Kerry is falling into Bush’s trap of making the 2004 election all about national security — past, present and future. In recent weeks, Kerry has been dragged into fights over his position on the Iraq war, his votes to cut or eliminate weapons programs and, most recently, whether the Massachusetts senator tossed his Vietnam war medals during a war protest 33 years ago. In many cases, Kerry was pulled away from promoting his plans to balance the federal budget, clean up the environment or create jobs to defend himself.”

Even if peace efforts start going poorly in Iraq, as has happened, or more evidence turns up that Bush missed signs pointing to the 9/11 attacks, as has also happened, it’s no sure thing that Kerry will benefit. As Daniel Drezner, writing in The New Republic observes:

“Bush’s best hope for reelection is for the electorate to focus on his leadership abilities–and one way for that to happen is for there to be trouble in Iraq.”