Presidential Candidates Evade Economic Labels

Article excerpt

With the conventions out of the way and the Bush-Quayle and Dukakis-Bentsen tickets in place, the guessing game gets more serious as to what one slate or the other would mean for national economic policy.

Thus far, it is hard to say.

Making economic policy and winning an election are different art forms, not to be confused.

Economic policy making mixes ideology, the state of economic understanding, the tools available to a president (or to Congress and the Federal Reserve) and, most important, the reality or crises an incumbent president faces.

Winning an election through economic issues or symbols is an exercise in salesmanship: building appeals to blocs of voters, inside or outside one's own party, sufficient to capture a majority.

For both presidential candidates, the choice of the vice presidential candidates may be critical in the game of political-economic salesmanship.

Gov. Michael S. Dukakis feels handicapped by a reputation as a ``liberal,'' a dirty word in the Reagan era. (President Reagan himself accused Dukakis of not daring to utter the ``L word.'')

The governor went to his right in naming Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, a veteran senator, fiscal conservative and hawk on defense, as running mate.

This was an appeal not only to the South but also to conservative Democrats and independents in all parts of the nation who had voted for Reagan.

Similarly, Vice President Bush is remembered for his early assault on Reagan's ``voodoo economics'' and is still regarded by his party's right wing as ``a closet moderate'' (as the columnist George Will put it). So he also went to his right in choosing Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana, a hawk on defense, an all-out opponent of higher taxes and a champion of a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

But does any of this symbolism, or any of the economic generalities that the candidates uttered in their campaign speeches disclose much about what either man would do as president?

Herbert Stein, the economist, has his doubts.

In the latest edition of his book, ``Presidential Economics,'' he writes, ``One thing that stands out about the presidential economics of the past 60 years is how surprising the connection often was between particular presidents and particular policies.''

Stein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, says no one could have predicted President Roosevelt's budget deficits from anything he had said before he took office.

This was no isolated case: ``The pre-inauguration Kennedy looked like a big spender, not like a tax cutter,'' Stein said. …