Neither Bush nor Kerry can fix your No. 1 problem
By Geoffrey Colvin

(FORTUNE Magazine) – SO AT LAST THE ELECTION IS A LITTLE MORE ABOUT THE economy than it used to be. Voters have been telling pollsters for months that the economy is their No. 1 concern, but media chatterers don't want to hear it and keep framing the election as a referendum on Iraq. Then Bill Clinton told John Kerry that Iraq (and Vietnam) were black holes for him issue-wise, and that he should start slamming President Bush on the economy--hey, it worked for Bill. The Kerry war room, with a few old Clintonistas moving in, seems to have listened, and now both candidates have apparently sussed that voters in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and the other swing states would actually love to hear what they propose to do about dollars-and-cents issues.

But take a close look, and it's easy to see why the candidates would much rather talk about almost anything else. The uncomfortable truth is that no matter what they propose, it will be exceedingly tough for either candidate to look good four years from now on the issue of the economy as voters understand it.

That's because when most voters say they're concerned about the economy, they don't mean GDP growth or the current-account balance or even interest rates or inflation. They mean just two things. First and above all, they mean their job--whether they have one, how good it is, and how secure they feel in it. Second, they mean the cost of health care. On the worry list, that one has risen very high very fast, not just because expenses are increasing so ferociously but also because the baby-boomers (led by Clinton) are entering their chest-clutching years and as usual are setting the nation's agenda. So people of every generation are suddenly freaked out about health-care costs.

What could any President do to make voters feel better on those two fronts in four years' time? Not much. On jobs, neither candidate is foolish enough to propose turning back the tide of globalization. Bravo--but that means that American workers will have to wade deeper into a worldwide labor market in which they're the high-cost option.

Highly publicized offshoring job losses will continue, but they were never a huge phenomenon. More significant will be the many jobs that just won't be created here in the first place, and the downward wage pressure on those that remain. Example: The worldwide garment trade becomes quota-free at the end of this year, and China's share of U.S. garment imports will then leap from 16% to 50%, the World Trade Organization forecasts. Imagine what that means for America's textile workers.

Both candidates have succumbed to stupid stopgaps. Kerry, realizing that many of those textile workers live in critical swing states, supports a just-introduced bill that would require the administration to again block imports "to avert disruptive floods of Chinese textiles into our markets." Bush earlier imposed tariffs on steel (you're welcome, West Virginia!) and timber. To their credit, both candidates know that in the big picture it's all about Americans being better educated and more productive, and both propose education programs. But neither program could significantly improve Americans' job security or pay in the next four years.

Both candidates claim that they could moderate health-care costs, naturally, but neither is talking about the excruciatingly hard choices that will be required. President Bush would offer people incentives to buy health-care coverage on their own, a good approach to reducing costs, but most of the 44 million uninsured wouldn't end up with coverage. They'd still get care the way they do now, through enormously expensive and inefficient visits to emergency rooms. John Kerry would help employers pay for employees' health costs. But rather than encourage uncovered individuals to buy insurance, he would cover them through a massive federal program that would be just as costly and wasteful as any other massive federal program. Costs for some individuals would fall, but there's no reason to think that the nation's total bill would even slow its roaring advance.

It's hard to see how either man can make voters feel much less troubled and jittery about the economy, meaning jobs and health-care costs. So of course the campaigns want to focus on other stuff. Trouble is, other stuff is not what the voters are most worried about. The sign above James Carville's desk in 1992 famously said, IT'S THE ECONOMY, STUPID. This year's version, suitable for framing at both campaigns' headquarters: IT'S THE ECONOMY, DAMMIT!

GEOFFREY COLVIN, senior editor at large of FORTUNE, can be reached at Watch him on Wall $treet Week With FORTUNE, Friday evenings on PBS.