It is, of course, easy to poke fun at the Democrats' occasionally verbose and meandering presumptive nominee. But Kerry's defensive tone on the March jobs report highlights a more fundamental flaw in his economic message: By focusing on short-term economic outcomes and quality-of-life indicators -- many of which have little or no connection to anything the administration has done -- he's failing to deliver a broad critique of Bush's economic policies and values, missing the forest for the trees.
To the extent the Kerry campaign has hinted at a broad economic critique, it's that the plight of the middle class has worsened substantially on George W. Bush's watch. During the primaries, Kerry focused on job creation. More recently, he needled the administration over rising gas prices. Then, this week, his campaign unveiled an attempt to unify these complaints: a so-called-- which combined jobs and gas prices with factors like the rise in college tuition, health care costs, and personal bankruptcies, along with the stagnation in personal incomes -- to indict Bush for the country's worst economic stretch in three decades.
Gregg Easterbrook has noted one problem with this approach. Another is that, as the jobs report showed, focusing on short-term indicators makes you look pretty silly whenever one of them improves, even if only temporarily. Moreover, many of the negative outcomes Kerry decries aren't really Bush's fault. Job growth, for example, has been slow mostly because unprecedented productivity growth (generally a good thing) has made it unnecessary to hire new employees even as the economy expands.
But the biggest problem is that, by concentrating on a grab bag of disparate indicators assembled only because they're all negative, Kerry is missing an opportunity to focus attention, broadly but clearly, on the ongoing pattern of fiscal recklessness and economic injustice that has consistently characterized the administration's policies. Yes, there are times when running on voters' anxieties -- whether or not they have anything to do with administration mismanagement -- is the only option a presidential challenger has. In 1992, for example, George H.W. Bush's generally sound management of the economy left Bill Clinton with no other choice.
But 2004 is not 1992. And, unlike the first Bush administration, the current one has taken every opportunity to reward the wealthy interests that finance its election efforts at the expense of the public good: a reduction of the top marginal income tax rate, a planned repeal of the estate tax, a large reduction in the tax on dividend income and capital gains, a "Medicare reform" bill that doubles as a windfall for pharmaceutical companies, an energy policy heavily skewed toward fossil-fuel industries -- the list goes on and on. Which is to say, whether or not college tuition rises this year, there are plenty of grounds on which to criticize the administration's economic stewardship.
John Edwards, Kerry's main rival in the Democratic primary race, developed a pithy and effective way of critiquing this agenda. The administration, Edwards argued, had embarked on a relentless effort to shift the country's tax burden from those who live off of their wealth to those who work for a living, and, more generally, to enforce one set of rules for the wealthy and another set for the poor and middle classes. Of course, each candidate has to articulate a critique that works for them, and it's unlikely that a Brahmin like Kerry would sound particularly believable aping Edwards, the son of a North Carolina mill-worker. But, unless Kerry can translate these same ideas into his own words -- perhaps using the Kennedy-esque language of shared mission and shared responsibility he tends to favor -- his chances of making inroads on domestic issues look worse and worse. As the recent jobs number demonstrates, economic circumstances may change between now and the election. President Bush's economic agenda won't.