ANALYSIS: Candidates in governor's race play economic blame game

Sunday, September 28, 2008 | 8:22 p.m. CDT; updated 8:50 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, October 7, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Not long ago, Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt seemed to begin almost all of his public events by highlighting the economy.

Since he took office in January 2005, Blunt would say, Missourians have created nearly 76,000, 87,000 or 95,000 jobs - whatever the number was for that day.

But when Blunt held his first Capitol news conference in quite some time last week, there was no rosy economic introduction. To the contrary, he ended up answering questions about Missouri's recent job loses and its highest unemployment rate in 17 years.

"Obviously, I'm very concerned by it," said Blunt, who is not seeking re-election. "I'm not pleased with the high unemployment number or where we've been on job creation really over the past 12 months."

Blunt's changed verbiage highlights the political peril of economics.

Chief executives, be they presidents or governors, often get credit when the economy is going well and blame when it is not - though neither may be much deserved.

"I generally tend to think that, even when we talk about the federal government, people overestimate the ability of the president and the executive office to influence (the economy)," said Saku Aura, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia who focuses on public economics.

"But definitely, in the case of the state, it should be a lot smaller" influence, he said.

That economists believe governors have a limited influence on the economy doesn't change the fact that people nonetheless want to hear gubernatorial candidates talk about it.

Consequently, over the past several weeks, Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon has shifted the theme of his gubernatorial campaign from health care to the economy.

For months, Nixon had made his No. 1 priority the reversal of the Republicans' 2005 Medicaid cuts that reduced or eliminated health care coverage for hundreds of thousands of low-income Missourians. Now, Nixon's health care proposals are promoted as part of his plan to improve Missouri's economy.

Nixon has put essentially his entire campaign platform under the umbrella of an economic plan - four years of free college tuition for students who start at a community college and keep good grades and community service; property tax breaks for an expanded number of seniors; and demanding repayment of tax credits from businesses that move jobs elsewhere, to name a few.

Nixon spokesman Oren Shur said all of the Democrat's policies "will have a positive impact on Missouri's economy and are geared toward helping Missouri families make ends meet during these tough times."

Nixon's campaign even has taken to criticizing his Republican gubernatorial rival, U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, whenever Hulshof discusses a policy not perceived to be related to the economy.

For example, when Hulshof announced his support of regional child support enforcement units Friday - peppered with criticism of Nixon on the topic - Shur responded by suggesting Hulshof was trying to distract people from the economic crisis, which he accused Hulshof of helping create by virtue of his work as a congressman.

It's not as though Hulshof is ignoring economic concerns. He, too, is putting proposals in an economic context.

As he began a media conference call last week announcing his proposals for Missouri's courts, Hulshof said: "We have hit a rough patch as far as our economic news is concerned. One of the things we have to do is make sure we maintain progress that has been made in encouraging businesses to locate in Missouri."

Hulshof, like Blunt, touts a recent report by the Ball State University Bureau of Business Research ranking Missouri No. 1 for manufacturing and logistics. He also embraces the Republican-backed 2005 laws that limited liability lawsuits and workplace injury claims as items that have improved Missouri's business climate.

If elected governor, one of the first things Hulshof would do to help the economy is not talk it down, Baker said.

"Not only does Jay Nixon not have anything good to say, he ridicules anyone who suggests that there is any positive aspect of our economy," Baker said. "His success depends upon people believing the doom and gloom."

Like Nixon, Hulshof also touts his higher education proposals as part of his economic plan, including a program that would develop customized college training programs for the employees of businesses locating in Missouri.

Hulshof's view of Missouri's economy sounds similar to that of Blunt's , who last week after expressing his economic concerns added: "We've got the right climate, we've got the right work force, we've just got to continue to be aggressive in reaching out to new job creators."

Without any prompting, Blunt then observed about the economy: "It's obviously an area of discussion for the two candidates for governor."

Economic discussion may be easier than ultimate economic influence for the gubernatorial winner.

But "for a politician, you don't want to run on a platform that says, ‘I have very little influence on the economy, and let's just hope it gets better,'" Aura said. "There is a clear bias in politicians' statements to claim they could have more influence than they actually do, because they have to be selling something to the electorate."


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