Richard Reeves

The Bad Numbers That Could Revive the Democrats

"Something is going on out there," said Karl Rove, the White House's political strategist. "We'll know what it is in two years or four years."

The Republican pro, the hottest talent in politics right now, was speaking to students at the University of Utah. His tone was as measured as that state is, but he said he thought younger people were turning to his party, and, for the first time in 52 years, polls were showing that voters who cared most about educational issues favored Republicans over Democrats.

That's a big deal, no doubt. There was only one bad moment. A woman in the audience politely asked Rove whether he was concerned that a war in Iraq might kill 200,000 innocent Iraqis, women and children among them. "I'm more concerned," he answered, "about the 3,000 people who died on Sept. 11."

Dreadful numbers, but they are at the core of Republican dominance these tense days. They may also be the trigger for command hubris of the kind that persuades presidents and their men to go too far, too fast, in too many places near and far. In far places, the Republicans, and all Americans, seem dominant, ready for "just war" against evil men.

But here at home there are other numbers that could mean the war-making, tax-cutting, election-winning trajectory of the Republicans has reached its peak, that the "something" Rove senses happening is not Republican command but the beginning of Democratic regrouping.

Here are other numbers from many sources:

-- The average participation in 401(k) plans dropped 2.5 percent in the past year, as workers learned stock prices go down as well as up.

-- The number of unemployed Americans has increased by 2.5 million in the past two years, raising the unemployment rate from 3.9 percent under President Clinton to 5.7 percent under President Bush.

-- The poverty rate, which had dropped for eight straight years, is rising again, from 11.3 percent to 11.7 percent.

-- The number of Americans without health insurance increased by 1.4 million in a year as health-care costs increased by 12.7 percent.

-- The Social Security Trust Fund, invested in government bonds, is now worth more than $1.3 trillion. If that money had been invested in the stock market, as Republicans from Bush on down have advocated -- in a Standard and Poor's 500 index fund, for example -- the Social Security fund would be worth $776 billion, a loss of 41 percent.

-- The lowest estimate I have seen of the cost of war in Iraq is $200 billion, which would be added to the current defense budget of $400 billion.

-- The national debt, in surplus under President Clinton, looks as if it will be $159 billion in deficit this year under President Bush -- and the deficit over 10 years is pegged at $1.49 trillion.

The president himself responded to this in the past week by saying that even deeper tax cuts will increase government revenues and therefore reduce the deficit. That was what President Reagan said as he rolled up more debt than the country had had in its entire history, all the while preaching the magic of the supply-side economics that Bush's father called "voodoo economics."

Bush the younger is about the only voice preaching supply-side now. "I don't know anyone who believes Bush is right," said Eric Engen, a former official of the Office of Management and Budget, who now toils at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Even Jude Wanniski, the popularizer of supply-side theory, now says of the Bush tax cut: "It's decreasing revenues."

So, Rove is right, something is happening, but it may not be what he wants to happen.

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600

NOTE: THIS CORRECTION WAS RELEASED 11/19/2002:

The Richard Reeves column dated for release Nov. 14, 2002, referred to a New York Times article printed the same day, which misstated a question to Karl Rove, who responded: "I'm more concerned about the 3,000 who died on Sept. 11." The questioner had asked whether he was concerned about the 200,000 people who she said marched in Washington against a war with Iraq -- not about concerns that 200,000 innocent Iraqis might die in an American-led invasion. -- UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

More like Richard Reeves