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It’s Not  (Only) the Economy . . . and We’re Not Stupid

Feb 13, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 21 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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"It’s the economy, stupid,” was a useful slogan for the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign. Of course, it wasn’t really true. The Clinton campaign was about much more than the economy. It was about “ending welfare as we know it,” for example, and putting government on the side of those who “work hard and play by the rules”—all of this part of a broader redefinition of the Democratic party away from the failed liberalism of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. And the collapse of the Bush administration in 1992 was also, as it happens, about much more than the economy, which was in fact coming back strong in the fall of that year.

Photo of Clinton campaigning for president in 1992.

Clinton campaigns for president, 1992.


Since then, we’ve seen an epic Republican collapse in 2006. That happened despite pretty good economic growth in the preceding two years. Its cause was some combination of the Bush attempt to institute private Social Security accounts, Hurricane Katrina, Harriet Miers, Tom DeLay, Donald Rumsfeld, immigration, and God knows what else—but not particularly the economy. The repudiation of the Democrats in 2010, for that matter, was fundamentally  about Obamacare, the size and scope of government, and particular Obama policies like the stimulus and cap and trade. It wasn’t primarily a referendum on “the economy, stupid.”

Nonetheless, the slogan has become a talisman, evoked by unimaginative political consultants and reached for by cautious candidates, in pursuit of an easy, safe, cookie-cutter campaign strategy. But it’s not safe. The belief that voters react in a simple-minded way to their current economic well-being leads campaigns and candidates to counterproductively dumb their message down. It’s also condescending, and voters often see it as such.

What’s more, focusing a campaign only on the economy is risky. The economy is unpredictable, and may end up doing well enough in 2012 that it doesn’t automatically help the Republicans—even if the nominee is someone who can boast of his success in the private sector and knowledge of how business works.

In addition, even if voters say, as they do today, that the economy is the most important issue for them, that doesn’t mean it will be the only issue on which most voters base their decision. You can tell a pollster the economy is your No. 1 issue, but you can also be uncertain as to which candidate will handle that issue better, so you might well then vote on the basis of another issue. You can even mildly prefer one candidate to another on your No. 1 issue (the economy, say), but decide to vote on the basis of another issue where the contrast between the candidates is starker or more salient.

Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen how Obama-care threatens freedom of religion (see Jonathan V. Last’s piece in this issue). We’ve been reminded of Eric Holder’s pathetic and ideological mismanagement of the Department of Justice (see Mark Hemingway’s editorial). We’ve seen several instances of this president’s weakness in foreign policy (see Elliott Abrams’s editorial). We’ve had reminders from the Congressional Budget Office of the looming entitlement and budget disaster and of the Obama administration’s gross irresponsibility on that front.

So there’s plenty besides the economy for the GOP to call attention to, to shout about, to use to illustrate the short and long-term dangers of Obama administration policies. A successful Republican presidential candidate will have to be about far more than the economy, narrowly understood, in order to win the election and to lay the groundwork for successful governance. Ronald Reagan famously asked at the end of the 1980 campaign whether we were better off than we had been four years before. But he had spent his whole campaign laying the predicate for that question by explaining why the Carter administration’s foreign and domestic policies had failed, not just economically but socially, and not just at home but in the world. He was also able to explain why liberal policies would continue us on a downward path. Reagan never left any doubt that the fundamental problem wasn’t just a few quarters of subpar economic performance. The problem was the arrogant destructiveness and wrongheaded fecklessness of modern liberalism. It still is.

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