President Carter is announcing new anti-inflation measures this week despite the misgivings of some Democratic officials, who fear that the announcement could backfire on the party's candidates in the Nov. 7 congressional elections.
Carter will unveil the new phase of the administration's anti-inflation program, which he has said repeatedly will be "tough," on national television Tuesday night, exactly two weeks before the elections.
Some party officials consider the timing of the announcement, in the works of one "an unnecessary, high-risk strategy" that may remind voters of the Democratic administration's inability to gain control of inflation during the last two years.
"I just don't see any sense in raising the visibility of the issue two weeks before election day," one party professional said. "There is no question that it is the major issue, but now people are not blaming one side or the other. To announce a new initiative is to say the old effort didn't work and to remind people we have been struggling with it for two years."
Such arguments for a delay have been put to Carter's White House advisers by Democratic Party chairman John White among others, but they have been brushed aside.
The president, according to White House sources, is so anxious to unveil his anti-inflation plan that he had to be talked out of making it public during the closing days of the 95th Congress. Presidential advisers feared it would only add to the chaos of the end-of-session rush.
Inside the White House, the sources said, the political debate has focused not on the anti-inflation program's likely impact on next month's election but the long-term political consequences for Carter's reelection chances in 1980.
"Some people are very concerned that the president is going to be hurt by getting out front on a no-win issue," one White House aide said. "If we are going to have unacceptably high inflation two years from now, then it's an absolute setup, doomed to be judged a failure."
Patrick Caddell, Carter's political pollster, has been among those pressing this point, arguing that the president should play the importance of the anti-inflation steps he will announce, to protect his political flanks in the event that inflation continues unabated.
The fear of failure is not confined to the president's political advisers. Most of his top economics are also skeptical privately about the anti-inflation campaign.
Some believe that a wage-price program may help shave half a percentage point from the current 7.25 percent inflation rate, but many doubt even that. And that could mean the unacceptably high inflation in 1980 that the political aides fear could haunt Carter.
As late as this weekend, the program was going through last minute changes, apparently growing in complexity, which is precisely what some party officials fear could make life miserable for Democratic candidates during the last two weeks of the congressional campaigns.
"If it's a nice simple clear plan that people can understand, it could be plus," a top Democratic official said. "But if it's so complicated you can't figure it out, it may give the Republicans something to tee off on."
When the president appears on television at 10 p.m. Tuesday, he will devote the bulk of his speech to an explanation of the new anti-inflation measures. He will describe the program as the best that can be done for now, but will caution that there is no simple cure for inflation and appeal to the public to give the new measures a chance to work.
The White House, according to one aide, is counting on the public's "sense of fair play" to cushion Carter and his fellow Democrats against the expected Republican criticism.
"There is no way to tell what he impact will be," he said. "It could be positive - here is a Democratic president taking steps to fight inflation. It could be negative if labor goes up the wall and decides to take it out on congressional candidates."
"The Republicans may shoot at it, but I think they will be making a mistake, "he added. "People are very concerned about inflation, but they don't think much can be done about it so there is not a climate of placing blame. And I think it's an atmosphere in which you can gain a lot of points by trying."
Republican officials agree that inflation is the nation's top domestic political issue and that the public is skeptical that anything can be done about it. But they are nonetheless gearing up for a counter attack following the president's Tuesday night speech. Bill Brock, the Republican National Committee chairman, plans to ask for equal time on television because the congressional elections are so near.
"It's cleary a political move in its timing," Steve Stockmeyer, the executive director of the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, said of the upcoming presidential speech. "If he was serious about it, he would have done it while Congress was still here. The only thing that is clearly popular is (wage-price) controls and he won't do that. Anything else is not going to be effective. It's another WIN program."
The GOP official was referring to former President Ford's much-ridiculed "Whip Inflation Now" program that was announced in 1974 and quickly forgotten.
Already, Republicans are teeing off on the Carter plan. In a campaign speech in New Haven, Conn. Friday night, Ford held up a newspaper headline reading, "President To Unveil Fourth Anti-Inflation Plan," and told a Republican audience, "I thought it was three strikes and out."
In a press conference, Ford said his successor was "pointing the finger at the wrong villain" in telling business and labor to cut back on price and wage boosts. "He continues to escalate spending on the federal budget 8 to 10 percent a year," Ford said, "while asking them to keep their increases at 5 to 7 percent. It is unconscionable for him to ask them to do what he is unwilling to do himself."
While Republican officials prepared to attack Carter's proposals, their Democratic counterparts moved last week to protect the party's candidates in the field. White said the Democratic National Committee has devised a system to inform all Democratic statewide candidates of the program's main provisions early Tuesday, before Carter's speech, and to give them "talking points" to defend it against the anticipated GOP onslaught.
White House aides, meanwhile, appeared confident that the new Carter anti-inflation measures will not backfire come Nov. 7.
"My guess is that most people will be willing to give it a chance," one aide said. "That's good enough for the program and for the politics."