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Postman on Politics

Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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August 6, 2008 1:40 PM

Gregoire's delicate walk around economic woes

Posted by David Postman

Gov. Chris Gregoire’s announcement of a hiring freeze this week was, as reported in The Times, her most significant action so far to confront a growing economic downturn. But she was oh-so-careful to separate Washington's situation from the poor economy nationally. There’s no mention of a recession, even outside of Washington state. Instead there is a “weakening” and “softening” of the national economy.

Her memo to state agency directors read as much like a campaign press release than an order for fiscal restraint. It opened by describing the state economy as “resilient” and boasted of Forbes’ ranking of Washington as the third best state in the nation for doing business. She talked of the “strategic investments that have enhanced the ability of businesses to thrive in even the toughest times” and pointed out the high ranking her administration got from the Pew Center on the States for managing the budget and state personnel.

Gregoire wrote:

Even though Washington’s economy remains healthy, a weakening national economy has affected us. The skyrocketing costs for groceries and the high price of fuel are being felt by all Washingtonians and by state agencies and institutions as well.

It’s as if the governor is afraid that acknowledging rising unemployment figures here, dropping state tax collections and projections of a widening budget gap could trip us into a recession. She is mindful of that sort of behavioral economics. Throughout this campaign year Gregoire has urged Washington residents to ignore the bad news spreading through 49 other states.

In her State of the State Address in January, Gregoire tried to boost consumer confidence:

I’d say to those folks wanting to buy a house -- our economy is strong.

She told the Washington Realtors in January that

she sometimes wishes people wouldn't watch the evening news because of all the "doomsday" talk of a home mortgage meltdown and a pending recession.

She elaborated on that at a February economic forum in Seattle:

I ask all of us to make sure that we do not buy into, or even for that matter, listen to, the dire talk internationally and nationally, because it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for us. … We must be optimistic. We must understand our economy is strong and growth is going to continue to be the future.

It’s a tough chore for anyone to talk away economic uncertainty. Gregoire’s job is made more difficult because her fellow Democrats at the federal level make the national economy a keystone of their campaigns against Republicans.

She drew the distinction this way in the opening line from her first TV ad of the campaign:

In George Bush's Washington, the news isn't good.

But in our Washington, Governor Gregoire is helping the middle class fight back.

Dino Rossi, Gregoire’s Republican opponent, has the opposite problem, of course. He needs to convince voters that times are tough here because of Gregoire’s policies, without reminding people how bad things are nationally, which could lead to generally bad news for Republicans on the ballot this fall.

His response to Gregoire’s hiring freeze focused on increased state spending on Gregoire’s watch.

If Republicans don’t want to push the recession, the governor’s biggest opponent in her fight to keep Washingtonians thinking positive may be a TV pitchman. But not just any pitchman, he played a president on television.

There’s an Allstate insurance commercial running now that appears to be on heavier rotation than any ad in the gubernatorial campaign.

The company calls the ad, “Grocery Store” and it features spokesman Dennis Haysbert -- who played the president on the Fox series "24" -- standing in the aisle of a store. He says in his basso-profundo:

If this isn’t a recession, it sure feels like one.

If the recession is a sales pitch -- and clearly, “That’s Allstate’s stand” -- how long can Gregoire keep such thinking from the minds of TV-watching, insurance-buying, voters?

Conservative commentator John Carlson said in a recent column that a political “catechism” has emerged about the national economy.

A liberal politician or media pundit claims that the economy is in recession. Their Republican counterpart disputes this, whereupon the aforementioned commentator or candidate promptly attacks the Republicans for being heartless, callous and out of touch.

Carlson says that, locally at least, Republican candidates and commentators should embrace bad economic news.

They should then point out that for the first time since Gregoire became governor, the state unemployment rate now equals the national unemployment rate -- 5.5 percent. When the state unemployment rate was about 4 percent, the Gregoire administration happily took the credit. Let her now take some blame. …

And so, let us try and weather these economic storm clouds and endure the “Gregoire Recession.” And if any of her supporters claim that such a charge is unfair and unfounded, the Republicans should attack them for being heartless, callous and out of touch.

There’s a danger there, though. I bet Republican backers in the state, particularly among small business owners and R-leaning Realtors, have been quietly applauding Gregoire’s Norman Vincent Peale approach. They wouldn’t want to see Rossi and other local Republicans talking down the economy at a time when businesses need confident consumers.

Maybe Peale, the great promoter of positive thinking, offers something for politicians who get gummed up when trying to figure out how to blame the other guy for bad economic news.

Everybody together now, recite after NVP:

Any fact facing us is not as important as our attitude toward it, for that determines our success or failure.

I feel better already.

MORE: Here's an even better answer to the question of who to blame for the economy:

Economy has own mind

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