Nearing the end of a presidential race thick with sound bites but thin on insight, it almost seems silly to wonder what President Bush and John Kerry really believe and where they want to take the U.S. economy.
That should be easy to answer nine days before the election. After all, we've suffered through relentless political speeches, gobs of TV ads, three major debates, two political conventions, campaign staff interviews, Web site position papers, documentaries, propaganda films, online blogs and e-mails, a score of barbed books on Bush and Kerry, a bazillion inches of newspaper stories and political chatter with our spouse, co-workers, friends and neighbors.
But there is no easy answer. Knowing the candidates' economic proposals and plans is one thing. Understanding their economic beliefs is another.
Bush is the conservative Republican. Kerry is the liberal Democrat. How simple it would be if that was all there is to it.
In a post-9/11, war-distracted era, the U.S. economy is more vulnerable and changing at ever quicker speeds. It's tougher for Bush and Kerry to rely on old and comfortable party stances on economic issues.
If only the economy was fixed and constant, responding to the same inputs that made it work so swell through most of President Clinton's 1990s.
Back then, we talked about the Internet boom and the bull market. Not now. We briefly thought we had conquered recessions and business cycles. No way. We admired the big federal surplus of the late '90's. Now we recoil at the big federal deficit of '04.
In such fluid economic times, it makes sense to look with fresh eyes at what Bush and Kerry are really thinking about the nation's economic future.
Busy folks might have missed it, but Bush has started using a phrase more and more often. The phrase captures his vision of the emerging American economy under his presumed next term.
That phrase is "ownership society."
Bush never really introduced the phrase as a catch-all for his economic views. He has eased the phrase, a little at a time, into speeches, citing the merits of home ownership.
Now the phrase is taking on a bigger meaning.
"I believe our country can, and must, become an ownership society," Bush said in last week's remarks in downtown St. Petersburg. "There's an old saying: "No one ever washes a rental car.' You see, when you own something, you care about it. When you own something, you have a vital stake in the future of our country."
Under the umbrella of an ownership society, Bush is promoting his health savings accounts so people have the security of managing and owning their health care account. The account, which comes with a tax break, can be used for out-of-pocket health care expenses if people buy high-deductible health insurance policies to cover catastrophic expenses.
Another ownership theme is behind Bush's desire to allow younger workers to divert part of their Social Security taxes into accounts they could invest in the stock market. Again, the workers would be responsible for managing that portion of their retirement savings.
Yet another ownership idea under consideration is to overhaul the U.S. tax system by reducing or even eliminating taxes on savings. Under this scenario, Americans could shelter every dime of their investment income from taxation. But people who rely on income from paychecks would still be taxed. And there would be a tax on consumption - on buying things - to offset the loss of tax revenue from dividends, capital gains and interest income.
The goal of such potentially radical changes, Bush policymakers say, is to re-engineer the economy to grow consistently at a faster pace. If that happens, they reason, then everybody gains through more jobs and higher income.
Treasury Secretary John Snow, in a interview last week at the St. Petersburg Times, acknowledged the Bush administration is exploring ways to simplify and revise the complex U.S. tax system. He said a task force is looking at "every tax from every angle," and a set of recommendations will be sent to the White House.
To be sure, lower taxes sound empowering. And who would not like tax-free investments? That would surely boost America's near-zero rate of savings.
Some of these ideas have been gaining momentum since the Reagan years.
There are just a few minor concerns.
First, the uplifting phrase "ownership society" masks the fact that many Bush proposals would shift a lot of financial risk - in health savings accounts or privatizing part of Social Security - from the government and corporations to the individual. If this sounds familiar, it should. Corporate America began shifting more of the risk of retirement funding to the worker when 401(k) retirement plans started replacing pension plans that guaranteed fixed payouts.
Also, ownership society sounds attractive to people with money. But it would yield few benefits to lower-income people who must spend most of their money - and therefore would face hefty consumption taxes - and save little in tax-free investments.
That revives the same question that plagued Bush through his first term. Are the benefits of his philosophy skewed heavily - and unfairly - to the wealthy?
And what of Kerry's harder-to-define economic beliefs? Clearly, he views government as a more positive force. He would use the clout of government to help spread health care coverage to many of the 45-million uninsured Americans. He believes in a progressive tax system to redistribute the nation's wealth, which means he would reimpose higher taxes on households making more than $200,000. And he favors raising the minimum wage.
Bush prefers government get out of the way of the business world. But Kerry's views are less ideological than Bush's, which makes them harder to articulate.
And of course, Kerry does not have a presidential term under his belt as a tangible framework for his economic vision.
"Part of the problem for Kerry is that unlike Bush, he has not offered voters an overarching theory of government's role that unifies his agenda," notes Ron Brownstein, the Los Angeles Times' senior political writer.
For much of this year, Kerry has tried to pattern himself after the Clinton presidency because the U.S. economy for much of the 1990s combined strong growth, a bull market and a federal budget surplus. What's not to like?
But Kerry needs to sell himself as more than just Clinton 2. In April, Kerry tried to align himself as a champion of middle America in a speech in which he offered a "contract with America's middle class." That contract, Kerry said, means not only keeping the country safe but preserving those middle-class opportunities - decent job opportunities and wages, affordable health care and college tuition - that helped turn the country into a world power.
It's a commendable contract, but not one voters necessarily connect to Kerry at a gut level. In this instance, Kerry's blue-blood personality and multiple-mansion lifestyle do not make him an easy fit with the average American household. And "middle class" is a vague term. Most Americans consider themselves middle class, though their incomes might differ dramatically.
Another message Kerry has tried to communicate is that when it comes to the economy, he is the real conservative and Bush is the radical risk taker.
Kerry has hammered Bush for squandering a federal budget surplus and creating a $415-billion deficit in only a few years. Kerry insists he will preserve the Social Security system, while Bush wants to start privatizing a portion of it. And Kerry argues Bush has demonstrated a lack of financial will - to demand national sacrifice - by heavy spending on the Iraq war and fighting terrorism while aggressively cutting taxes.
Throughout this campaign, Kerry was more adept at poking holes in Bush's record than he was at detailing his big-picture idea of the economy.
In the end, voters might identify less with Kerry's personal economic beliefs and more with the idea that Kerry's vision simply is not Bush's. In this close and polarized race, that just might be enough.