Difficult as it is to believe, it was 16 years ago that the phrase “the economy, stupid” defined Bill Clinton’s successful bid for the Presidency. James Carville’s powerfully simple mantra has been found under the letter “I” in America’s political dictionary ever since; and Democrats and Republicans alike have found it especially pertinent in various contexts. The reason is simple—while foreign wars and domestic legislative battles are fleeting, the average American citizen’s thirst for financial freedom to pursue his American Dream trumps all.
The economy in recent years has been sufficiently vibrant to render most Americans financially confident on their various levels, so with this first need cared for worry was available to be spent upon things like the War on Terror. Certainly, a year ago any analyst would have predicted that the War in Iraq would take center stage in the presidential campaign. Based on the media’s (and to a certain extent the citizenry’s) preoccupation with the goings-on in Iraq at the time, this was a fair assumption. However, two developments coincided to bring the economy back to the forefront of concern.
The first of these developments was the dramatic success of the troop surge in Iraq, President Bush’s last-gasp effort to demonstrate success in Iraq. In a series of deft political moves that ought to at some point be studied more in depth, Bush quieted a fresh Democrat-controlled Congress who demanded a withdrawal from Iraq by convincing them to give him one final shot, as it were. Much to the Congress’ dismay, Bush’s plan actually worked for the most part. With a dramatic drop in violent incidents in Iraq, the bloodthirsty domestic media in turn seemed to lose interest in focusing the spotlight in the “disaster” in Iraq.
As Iraq faded from the limelight, the first noises of a looming crisis in the financial sector began to be heard. Over the course of the last half of 2007, the chorus of bad financial news grew exponentially louder. We are now all too familiar with the refrain that points to troubled lending institutions and weakness of the US dollar as evidence of what may already be a recession.
Flash back to 1992, when Carville posted “The economy, stupid” on the wall of Bill Clinton’s campaign office. Incumbent president George H.W. Bush had just presided over a mild recession while the thrill of victory in the Gulf War was in the process of slipping from memory. Bush suddenly seemed irrelevant.
Today’s situation isn’t a perfect reprise of 1992 by any stretch, but as we have seen there are clearly some parallels that can inform analysis of the 2008 Presidential campaign. Foreign concerns remain, but are not at the forefront of debate. Healthcare is slightly higher in the hierarchy of issues. Tax reform garners a similar level of attention. It is change in Washington and a quick fix for the ailing economy that far and away dominate the messages of the campaigns of both the Democrat and Republican candidates.
Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Rudy Giuliani all would do well to post Carville’s words in their offices, or at least have them tattooed inside their eyelids. Even if the freefalling economy begins to right itself in light of initiatives by the Fed and the White House, the after-effects will linger throughout the campaign. Of all candidates, Mitt Romney with his vast (and clearly successful) business background, has the best opportunity in this environment. It will be interesting to see if he can capitalize on this opportunity. The rest of the field will be relying less on their resumes and more in their various contrived “my plan”s.