Lack of enthusiasm for the candidates gives events the same crucial role in the general election they played in the primaries. One of those events -- the biggest probably -- is already upon us. But which way will the recession cut? How much will rising unemployment hurt Jimmy Carter?
Normally, recession works for the Democrats. They are known as the activist party, ready to pep up the economy at the loss of a job. By contrast, the Republican reputation is for principled opposition to government stimulus of the economy. The last three times the Republicans lost the White House -- in 1932, 1960 and 1976 -- the Democrats profited by highlighting the issue of unemployment.
Economic conditions, furthermore, have a differential impact on voter turnout. Inflation, by breeding a sense of despair, fosters a low turnout. Unemployment, because of its supposed to be curable, yields higher turnouts. If only because there are so many fewer Republicans in the electorate, high turnout helps the Democrats.
This year, however, several conditions bear heavily against the norm. The sharp rise in unemployment -- from 6.2 percent in March through 7.8 percent in May with prospects of rising to 8.5 percent at election time -- is set entirely within the Carter administration. This recession is unambiguously a Carter recession, and it is hard to believe a little of the blame won't rub off adversely at the polls.
The more so because of the Kennedy campaign. Sen. Kennedy pitched his bid for the presidency on proposals for drastic action to meet the twin dangers of recession and inflation. He alone has had the courage to call for the kind of restraint on wages and prices that would make it possible to gun the economy without simultaneously setting in motion a new round of inflation.
To be sure, the nomination is not going to be won for Kennedy by the virtue of his economic proposals. But the deepening recession confirms the senator in his views and makes him stand even more firmly by his policies. As unemployment rises, he becomes less and less likely to strike a bargain with Jimmy Carter. Apart from unseemly division, moreover, their jostling will shadow the best remedy available to the president for mastering recession politics.
Theoretically, the sure-fire Democratic medicine is a stimulative package sponsored by the president and whipped through Congress by hugh Democratic majorities a month or so before the election. But relations between the Democratic president and the Democratic Congress have rarely been worse. That is the plain meaning of the overwhelming votes in the House and Senate to override the president's veto of the congressional decision to block the proposed oil import fee.
So it is going to be difficult in any case for the president and Congress to come to terms on a recovery program. It will be more difficult still, with Sen. Kennedy going all out for the kind of serious effort the administration has never had the inner force to accept.
The independent candidate, John Anderson, further dims the president's prospects for mastering the economic issue. As an individual, Anderson is the class of the field -- intelligent, articulate, broadly experienced and humane in outlook. Insofar as he pushes his candidacy, he will be taking liberal Democratic votes away from Jimmy Carter in the big northern states.
He is serious about both energy and economic recovery. The deepening recession, accordingly, also impels him to hand in. Indeed, he told me in an interview the other day that the prospect of not running is now "almost inconceivable."
Lastly there is the figure of Ronald Reagan. Reagan does not exactly exude economic competence. Some of his advisers sound like a collective Typhoid Mary of economic distress. But he has an undoubted social affinity -- born of manner, of having make it himself and of belonging to a profession despised by the better-educated -- with blue-collar workers. It is not going to be easy; it is going to be very hard for the Carterites to cast the best-known fan of "Little House on the Prairie" as a hardhearted, tight-fisted latter day embodiment of Herbert Hoover.
So for many reasons the recession spells nemesis for Jimmy Carter. Its cumulative impact on Kennedy, Anderson and Reagan makes it possible to see how Carter could lose the election.