Whose Slowdown Is It, Anyway?

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Happy landings? The President-elect and Alan Greenspan following a meeting

Bill Clinton knows how to beat the economic drum for political gain — moaning about "the worst economy in 50 years" was his death blow for George Bush back in 1992, and the eight-year boom kept Clinton himself afloat during the worst of political times. And now, irony of ironies: Clinton's successor, who happens to be Bush's son, is bad-mouthing Clinton's most precious legacy and warning America about the possibility of a downturn/recession in the spring.

No wonder the White House is upset. "By appearing to be willing to treat the economy as just another political football, they send the wrong signal to the markets about the seriousness with which they take their economic stewardship," Clinton national economic adviser Gene Sperling said Thursday.

Bush obviously figures the best immunization against a spring contraction is to give plenty of reminders that it'll be a problem he inherited from Clinton. And a little gloom and doom is the best sales pitch in years for big across-the-board tax cuts, which haven't been popular since Ross Perot made fiscal responsibility cool again. So Bush has little reason for public optimism.

But it takes two to play political football. The White House's frenzied attempts to protect its economic halo — "No economist thought we could continue to grow at 5 percent a year indefinitely," Clinton reminded Dan Rather on Monday — could certainly be considered gamesmanship too.

Bush's defense is that he's only saying what the markets and the pundits have been saying for months, and he's right. The economy is slowing down, and even Alan Greenspan can't guarantee that a soft landing won't turn into a rocky one. As for White House complaints that recessionary warnings from a President-elect and his team (and a team without a lot of credibility on economic issues at that) can be self-fulfilling, well, that would appear to be a lot of hooey.

In these economic times, the only man with prophet status is Greenspan himself, and his verbal powers apply only to the markets (and even then not as much as they used to). As for the larger economy, one of the bones of contention between Greenspan and the first Bush was that Bush's Treasury people thought the Fed chairman should be jawboning the economy, and Greenspan thought that was silly, and it's doubtful Father Greenback is worried about young Mr. Bush making the recession happen with a few holiday hints about being prepared for the worst.

Greenspan kicked off the Clinton legacy in 1992 by selling the incoming president on deficit reduction, and in 2000 he'll be the gatekeeper for Bush's tax cut. This is also Greenspan's slowdown — he started it off himself with six interest-rate hikes that ended last spring, and if the soft landing gets ugly, it'll be Greenspan's shame, not Clinton's or Bush's.