John Kerry’s economic tutors rate him highly as a student, but admit that the Massachusetts Senator’s message still needs work.
For several months, Mr. Kerry has been coming to New York on a monthly basis not just to raise money, but to talk about it. He has assembled a high-powered team of advisers who he hopes can help him in forming an economic agenda for the 2004 campaign. The meetings, which are organized by financier Roger Altman, have included Gene Sperling and Laura Tyson, both chief economic advisers in the Clinton administration, and investment banker Felix Rohatyn.
Though each campaign consults with experts and informal advisers, participants in the Kerry meetings say that the candidate has, to a greater extent than his rivals, formalized his tutorial discussions. He has presided over regular corporate-style meetings to discuss developments and to plan for the days and weeks ahead. And participants say that Mr. Kerry has been the most aggressive of any of the Democratic candidates in seeking their advice.
“We’d like to see a Democrat win the election,” said Alan Blinder, a professor of economics at Princeton University, who has not endorsed any candidate but was approached by Mr. Kerry. “And since Kerry is the one who’s asking, we’re prepared to help.”
The general idea of the meetings has been not only to teach Mr. Kerry about the intricacies of making economic policy on the Presidential level, but to help in tailoring his oratory and policy prescriptions to changing events as the race progresses.
But the meetings also serve the function of projecting an image of seriousness on economic issues, which will be at or near the top of voters’ list of priorities going into the elections next year. This is not lost on Mr. Kerry’s campaign officials, who have suggested that his economic advisory group is “Clintonesque” because of the similarities it bears to the groups of smart-people-of-substance convened by former President Clinton before his election in 1992. Nor is the importance of that imagery lost upon the participants themselves.
“What’s exceptional about this is that the other candidates, for the most part, are focused on fund-raising and politics, and Kerry’s got this group of bright lights together to focus on policy,” said one of the participants who is a Kerry supporter. “There’s nothing else like this that I know of.”
Here’s how the meetings actually work. The group gets together with the candidate every three or four weeks, with out-of-town members of the group conferenced in on the telephone. The meetings are sometimes in Washington and more often in New York, where they are frequently held in the office of Mr. Altman, who organizes them. They are generally about one and a half to two hours long, and Mr. Kerry decides the topics of conversation. They talk about economic policy in the context of current events and whatever is happening in the campaign, with Mr. Kerry asking questions and the advisers doing their best to answer.
Other economic advisers who have participated in the meetings are investment bankers Blair Effron, Robert Shapiro, Eric Mindich and Orin Kramer; venture capitalists Bo Cutter, Thomas Steyer and Steven Rattner; Berkeley professor Alan Auerbach; former assistant S.E.C. chairman Les Samuels; and former Clinton economic advisers Sarah Bianci and Peter Stamos.
Wanted: Crisp Message
However effective the meetings are, Mr. Kerry will have a way to go if he is to achieve a Clintonesque result. If his goal is to make the economy his issue, as Bill Clinton did in 1992, he’ll have to overcome a number of serious challenges. In the short term, he is faced with the same problem as his competitors in the primary field, which is figuring out how to generate a clear message on the economy that is distinguishable to the average voter from that of the other candidates.
Some candidates-notably former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and Representative Richard Gephardt-have staked out clearly identifiable positions on the Bush tax cuts, for example, which is that they would repeal most or all of them. Mr. Kerry seems to advocate a less sweeping and clear-cut approach, favoring a rollback of some tax cuts and introducing some new ones of his own.
“He’s not interested in speed here, and he wants to take as much time as he needs to come up with policies that will work,” said one adviser. “But he obviously has to get a crisper economic message at some point.”
In addition, the Democrats have yet to figure out how to tar President Bush with the bad economy, in the way that former President Clinton did to the first President Bush. According to polls, supporters of Mr. Bush still approve of the way he has handled the economy, and believe that the record tax cuts passed by the White House will eventually help to turn the economy around. What’s more, Mr. Bush will go on the offensive this week with a series of speeches emphasizing early signs of economic recovery, and is expected to argue that the tax cuts are beginning to have the stimulative impact that he promised.
Mr. Kerry is also constrained by doubts about the economy. Judging by their conversations with The Observer , his advisers are very much under the impression that whoever wins election-or re-election-in 2004 will be faced with an array of unattractive options, with scant resources at the government’s disposal and a dauntingly long list of pre-existing spending obligations.
Other campaigns question the significance of Mr. Kerry’s economic brainstorming sessions. “Any candidate can have a million meetings,” said Steve McMahon, a consultant to Mr. Dean. “Even if the meetings are quite good, they’re no substitute for experience balancing budgets, running state agencies and managing governmental programs-which contrasts sharply with the experience of a legislator, who gets to give speeches, vote on things and occasionally pass a piece of legislation.”
Mr. McMahon also noted that Mr. Dean and most of the other Democratic candidates talk regularly with economic-policy experts. He cited the example of Mr. Sperling, who talks regularly to Senators Joe Lieberman and John Edwards, and has talked to Mr. Dean in the past.
The true measure of the candidates’ economic expertise won’t come until later in the campaign, when the proposals become more specific and the media coverage more intense. For now, Mr. Kerry’s pronouncements on the subject adhere to a broad formula of criticizing the Bush administration’s policies, with hints of some pleasant-sounding alternatives of his own. (He proposes, among other things, a “payroll-tax holiday,” “a job-creation tax credit” and “empowerment accounts” for low-income Americans.)
The template, for the near future, is likely to remain similarly broad. “The stump speech is probably going to be about how this could be the only President to wind up with a net loss of jobs in his term since Herbert Hoover,” said Mr. Kramer. “How we’re being utterly irresponsible by running up colossal deficits and dumping them on our children. And then there’s the distributional argument: that, long term, we can’t afford what they did and that, short term, they’ve given so much of the money to those with the least need and the lowest propensity to spend it.”
His advisers are also aware that Mr. Kerry’s learning period won’t last forever. “Kerry, by his nature, is sort of thoughtful and deliberate, and doesn’t quickly jump to conclusions,” said Mr. Blinder. “That’s fine at this stage, but we all realize that at some later stage, he’ll have to make some hard choices.”