Expect to hear a new iteration of ‘It’s the economy, stupid’—and fond allusions to the ’90s.
FROM POLITICO | APRIL 12, 2015
When Hillary Clinton announces her candidacy on Sunday, the Republicans will no doubt redouble their efforts to make the case that a vote for Hillary is a vote for Barack Obama’s third term—and the GOP believes no one wants that, for Pete’s sake. Clinton’s campaign, by contrast, will almost certainly make a very different case: If they vote for her, Americans will be getting something far closer to Bill Clinton’s third term.
Tying her husband’s administration to her candidacy, Hillary Clinton has started to focus her language and her speeches on the continued struggles of the vast American middle class to adjust to a changed and still-changing economic landscape. That has ranged from addressing inequality of opportunity to less mobility to what she has called the “outrage that so many women are still paid less than men for the same work.”
In comments she has made over the past year or so, she has portrayed the 1990s as a template for sound economic policies—even when compared with the record of the Republican Party’s modern-day hero, Ronald Reagan. “If you want a better future that is going to be reliant on making smart economic policies, compare my husband’s eight years with Ronald Reagan’s eight years—23 million new jobs, more than seven million people lifted out of poverty,” Clinton told PBS last June. At another point last year she declared in a speech: “The 1990s taught us that even in the face of difficult long-term economic trends, it’s possible through smart policies and sound investments to enjoy broad-based growth and shared prosperity.” The eight years that followed her husband’s presidency, she said, showed how bad policy could turn budget surpluses into deficits and "what happens when your only policy prescription is to cut taxes for the wealthy."
Given how widespread today’s economic concerns are, a new iteration of “It’s still the economy, stupid” could be a sound foundation for a successful campaign—one that creates just enough distance on the economy between Obama and Clinton (who, after all, spent her entire tenure in the Obama administration working on foreign policy). Even so, Clinton faces multiple challenges separate from those of her own making: the implied comparison between the economy of the 1990s and the utterly fuzzy nature of our economic world today defies easy characterization. How she threads those issues will likely determine her the outcome of her second quest for the White House.
Twenty-four years ago, Bill Clinton campaigned to fix an ailing economy that had seen massive layoffs in manufacturing in the recession of 1991. He assailed then President George H.W. Bush for ignoring the suffering of the middle class. His campaign moniker, “It’s the economy, stupid,” helped propel him to victory over a sitting president.
The situation today is arguably better than it was in 1991-1992, with the unemployment rate averaging 6.8 percent in 1991 and 7.5 percent in 1992 versus 5.5 percent over the past months. The end of the Cold War, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the resounding American sense of triumph in those years, as well as victory in the war to evict Iraq from Kuwait, also placed the United States in a far stronger position internationally, though that is more clear in retrospect than it was just then, when uncertainty about international chaos lent an air of unease.
But even though today looks statistically better than the early 1990s, the national mood is arguably worse, though mood gauges are the softest of soft statistics. Jobs numbers as well don’t adequately account for the much lower participation rate of American workers, with a smaller percentage of Americans working (nearly 67 percent then versus about 62 percent now). More important, and hence the reason for Hillary’s focus on the middle class, wages have barely budged since the early 1990s for the vast majority of workers.
In contrast to the early Republican message that government has impeded the progress of the average American, the Clinton campaign looks to stress how government in conjunction with individual initiatives and businesses can help boost opportunities. The subliminal (or maybe not so) implication is that is just what happened throughout the eight years the other Clinton was president.
It is undeniably true that between 1993 and 2000, the United States experienced a boom in both employment and economic growth. Sentiment as measured by Gallup polls about satisfaction with the economy also improved greatly, with just 24 percent expressing satisfaction in 1992 compared with 69 percent in 2000. The prevailing buzz was that of an economy firing on all proverbial cylinders, boosted by information technologies that were enhancing worker productivity and by a Wall Street and equity boom that saw tens of millions of Americans trading hot-dot stocks that promised not just wealth but connectivity, peace and happiness.
So serene was the landscape that the election of 2000 between Gore and George W. Bush generated precious little heat and passion. Many felt that it really didn’t matter who became president given the receding important of foreign affairs and the booming economy. Given subsequent events, from 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, to the collapse of the stock markets in 2001-2002 to the housing bubble, and the financial crisis of 2008-2009, the complacency about 2000 seems as quaint and deeply misguided as those who predicted a century of peace in the falsely halcyon days of 1914.
The drama, much of it self-inflicted, of the George W. Bush years in the White House surely acts as a favorable backdrop for Hillary. That should have been the case in 2008, but then came the unraveling of the housing bubble and the sudden ascendancy of Obama. Now, with Jeb Bush in the field, we have a ready-made story of a new chapter of the Bush-Clinton rivalry that, while not quite Hatfield-McCoy in bitterness, still has key elements of an American War of the Roses.
The implicit Clinton interest in casting the 1990s as a period of peace and prosperity destroyed by Jeb Bush’s younger brother isn’t without risks. To begin with, as we know, the seeds of the housing bubble and subsequent financial collapse were more than laid in the 1990s. The deregulations of the banking industry, the encouragement of Fannie and Freddie to relax lending and packaging standards, and the embrace of the “ownership society” were the necessary prerequisites for the bubble and the collapse.
And 1990s nostalgia suffers from the same rose-tinted myopia as 1950s nostalgia. The ‘50s are invoked as time of middle-class ascendancy, but the whole point of the War on Poverty launched by LBJ in the 1960s was that the self-satisfied aura of the ‘50s conveniently overlooked the tens of millions living an untenable life. Similarly, while many did indeed thrive in the ’90s, with booming IRAs and golly-gees Silicon Valley inventions, every year of that decade saw fewer and fewer manufacturing jobs and no dramatic wage gains. It took the financial crisis of 2008-2009, and the revelation that so much of our supposed prosperity was built on mountains of debt, for us to realize what had been really happening.
Today, however, we have if anything swung to an opposite extreme of caution and skepticism about not just our economic system but whether we are perched for a new step down or a next step forward. American candidates have for decades harkened back to some better past that they and their party will reclaim, recapture, recreate. Such stories are catnip, but in today’s world they are less useful as both tropes and agendas. Publics are soured on the recent past and not particularly hopeful about the near future. Evoking memories of the 1990s is a two- edged sword, presenting a simulacrum of the past that can easily be punctured and a contrast with the present that makes our current circumstances seem even worse.
So while it is true that “it’s still the economy stupid,” simply promising to renew the middle class may not work as either policy or politics. Recent sentiment surveying shows American evenly divided between those who think things are getting worse and those who think things are getting better. A message that works for one side of that equation may well backfire for the other. That is a challenge not just for Hillary, but for all candidates. Even more, it presents a challenge for policy. In a world without clear consensus about problems, it is hard to forge one to address them.
A focus on a new contract, a new dream, a new formula to ensure opportunity and sufficient prosperity is as good a starting point as any. But it is only that, and unless it is soon juxtaposed to actual problems and issues that resonate, it will run on fumes of past nostalgia that will almost certainly exhaust themselves well before Americans go to the polls in 2016. Hillary Clinton may well be tempted to evoke her husband’s past, but she would do far better to keep her focus on the future.