Classic Clinton Phrase Inspires New GOP Strategy to Regain Power

Sixteen years ago, Bill Clinton surged to an improbable presidential victory over incumbent George H.W. Bush, primarily on the strength of a snarky campaign phrase: "It's the economy, stupid."

Now, Republicans appear to be crafting their own version in an effort to recapture both chambers in Congress next year.

Their message: President Obama's fiscal policy "spends too much, taxes too much and borrows too much."

While that phrase lacks the same zing as Clinton's, Republicans have persistently wielded it every chance they get.

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour unleashed the phrase in the last two weekly Republican addresses. Other GOP leaders to hurl it include House Minority Leader John Boehner, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

"Obama is providing us with a message by definition of the trillions of dollars in spending for the stimulus and spending packages," said Bill Lee, a GOP consultant who once defeated Clinton in a gubernatorial race. "Obama is the best messenger the Republicans have at this juncture. He's ably assisted in this regard by [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid."

Lee said he doesn't know which slogan will help restore power to Republicans.

"But it certainly is going to center around that subject," he said.

Richard Goodstein, a Democratic consultant and former adviser to President Clinton, told that he is amazed some of the same critics who argued the economy was strong under Clinton because of steps George H.W. Bush took, are blaming Obama for a crisis he inherited from George W. Bush.

"It's hypocritical to a degree that even most people find a bit much," Goodstein said, adding that he believes the Republican strategy "is fairly bankrupt and that's pretty much the only card they have to play. Do I think that's a winning strategy? We'll see."

One Republican lawmaker has even borrowed Clinton's legendary phrase to attack the Democrats' handling of the economy.

"Bill Clinton, back in 1992, when he was running for office, you know, their campaign coined the phrase, 'It's the economy, stupid,'" said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., "Well, that was when we were in a very minor recession. Today we are in a severe recession, with no end in sight."

The GOP fell into disarray after losing two consecutive elections. But since Obama has taken office, Republicans have rallied around their opposition to the president relying on government spending to end the economic crisis and his insistence on pushing through his agenda to reform healthcare, energy and education.

"Ultimately, the results will bear themselves out," said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "If we should find ourselves in this mess next year, Democrats will have a lot of explaining to do. They will have run up an astronomical amount of debt with little results."

Republicans are also trying to seize on the AIG bonus debacle and bailout corruption to craft their winning strategy.

"I don't think anyone who watched the last two weeks think Democrats were unscathed by that issue," said Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "People like Chuck Schumer and Chris Dodd have been like the foxes guarding the henhouse. It went unnoticed because they sat their and pointed their fingers at George Bush."

Walsh said Democrats cleverly hung Bush around the neck of Republicans in the last election cycle. But they won't have him to kick around next year, Walsh said.

"They're the party in charge," he said.

Spain said the AIG controversy "was a direct result of a lack of transparency and accountability on the part of Democrats in Congress. This was a bill that was crafted behind closed doors in the dead of night. Not a single member of Congress read the bill. Now we are forced to deal with this serious lapse of judgment on the part of Democrats in Congress."

Goodstein says it remains to be seen whether Democrats have been scarred by the AIG fiasco, noting that Republicans are typically viewed as having close ties to Wall Street.

"Indeed it speaks to the bankrupt nature of their strategy that they can predicate a policy on the public blaming Obama for some of the failings on Wall Street," he said. "People see through it."

But Republicans believe their strategy will work.

"If they continuing doing what they're doing," Walsh said of Democrats, "I'm increasingly optimistic about Republicans' chances in 2010.