Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Trumping the Presidency

I've seen this before.

Nearly 20 years ago, the economy was in a bad way. Not as bad as it is now, but still bad by contemporary standards, and many Americans were desperate for a president who could restore economic equilibrium.

I don't know if many of the people who voted for George H.W. Bush in 1988 did so because they believed he could handle an economic downturn. In fact, my memory of the 1988 campaign is that the economy really wasn't discussed at length — and, when it was, it was mentioned in terms that were favorable to Bush, who, as the incumbent vice president, sought to share in the credit for the things that were perceived as good about the Reagan presidency.

And one of those things was the strong economy.

Things turned sour during Bush's presidency, though, and, by 1992, America was caught in a recession. Americans were looking for a president who understood that "it's the economy, stupid" and would govern accordingly.

The person to whom many Americans turned in 1992 was a man who had demonstrated his ability as a businessman — Ross Perot.

Perot didn't take the nomination away from Bush. He didn't even try.

He did run as an independent. He didn't win the election, of course. He didn't carry a single state. But he captured nearly one–fifth of the popular vote. It was the highest share of the popular vote taken by a third–party candidate in 80 years.

You can still find some people who will tell you that Bush would have been re–elected if Perot had not been on the ballot — even though every exit poll I saw in 1992 said that about 20% of Perot's supporters would not have participated at all if he had not been a candidate and the rest would have been divided about evenly between Bush and Clinton.

Those numbers never added up to a Bush victory if it had been a two–man race.

I didn't vote for Ross Perot in 1992, but I always felt that I understood the reasoning of most of those who did. They believed that someone who had been a success in business would have special insights for dealing with a recession.

I didn't disagree that Perot had been remarkably successful in business, but I never felt that his business skills were applicable to the presidency. An entrepreneur does not have to at least try to resolve conflicts to everyone's satisfaction; his word is law. If two of his employees don't get along or if they disagree, he can reassign — or dismiss — one of them. Problem solved.

That isn't how it works in a democracy. A president who blithely dismisses Congress' input does so at his peril — particularly when one of the chambers just flipped decidedly to the opposing party.

Until last November's midterm elections, Barack Obama's party controlled both chambers of Congress. For awhile, the Democrats' margin in the Senate reached the elusive filibuster–proof 60. But that advantage disappeared more than a year ago. That makes compromise a necessary skill.

In a divided government, the ability to compromise is crucial, and Obama brought no relevant experience with him to the presidency. But neither would this generation's Ross Perot — Donald Trump — whose name is on everyone's lips, it seems.

After Perot ran unsuccessfully for president in 1992 and 1996, Trump toyed with the idea of running as an independent in 2000. But he didn't — ostensibly for several reasons, but I think just one was decisive. The economy in 2000 wasn't bad enough. The Clinton presidency had produced a budget surplus.

I think that tells you everything you really need to know. Still there are people who speculate about why Trump might get into the race this time.

At The Daily Caller, John Ziegler writes that Trump's rise in the polls is the result of a "celebrity–obsessed culture."

And Eugene Robinson's column in the Washington Post says the "birther" issue is fueling the Trump–for–president movement.

It's true that Trump has said he won't disclose his tax returns until Obama discloses his birth certificate — but, frankly, I don't think the "birther" issue is what's driving people to promote Trump for president. Nor do I believe a celebrity fetish is behind it.

It's the economy, stupid.

The Energy Information Administration, part of the Department of Energy, predicts gas prices will be up 40% over last year during the summer driving season. That isn't good news for folks who wanted to hit the road and get away from it all, at least for awhile, this summer — or the people who depend on summer tourism to carry them through the cold and bleak months of winter.

If there is good news to be found in that, it may be that gas prices are already up by about 33% over their level at this time last year — so the increase isn't likely to be as severe as what motorists have already experienced this year.

But no increase will be welcome. You'd think that Obama would be doing anything he can to boost the economy under these circumstances — a Washington Post survey shows that twice as many respondents say they "strongly disapprove" of Obama's handling of the economy as say they "strongly approve" — but he isn't, at least not with the sense of urgency one might expect.

Things are a lot worse in 2011 than they were in 1992, and a lot more voters may be receptive to what Trump has to say.

Philip Klein of the Washington Examiner warns that Trump is no Perot.

But to stressed–out consumers who are weary of waiting for the economy to turn around, it may not matter.

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