During one of Hillary Clinton’s preparation sessions for the first Democratic debate, held in Las Vegas in October, former President Bill Clinton urged her to remind voters how well the economy has performed under Democratic administrations, including his own.
He recalled one of his favorite refrains as a candidate — “If you want to live like a Republican, vote like a Democrat” — and suggested Hillary Clinton find a snappy line of her own, according to two people with direct knowledge of the conversation.
She did. “The economy does better when you have a Democrat in the White House,” Hillary Clinton said in her opening statement in the Oct. 13 debate.
And that pithy argument has since become the core of her economic message. Leaning heavily on her husband’s record of lifting wages and creating jobs, Hillary Clinton is at the same time castigating Republicans for embracing policies that she says led to the economic downturns that Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama inherited.
The Democratic primary had been tough on Bill Clinton’s legacy until recently: Hillary Clinton and her primary opponents, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, have variously disavowed or denounced her husband’s policies on crime, same-sex marriage, trade, the deregulation of Wall Street and cutbacks to social programs for the poor.
Bill Clinton has expressed regret for approving the Defense of Marriage Act, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred gays and lesbians from serving in the military, and the 1994 crime bill, which led to an increase in police officers and tougher sentencing for minor drug offenses.
“I signed a bill that made the problem worse and I want to admit it,” Bill Clinton said at an NAACP event in July, shortly after Hillary Clinton devoted the first major policy speech of her campaign to calling for an end to the “era of mass incarceration.”
Her recent and repeated embrace of her husband’s economic successes — the sort of message she would be likely to take to general election audiences — speaks to Hillary Clinton’s growing confidence in her position in the Democratic primary.
While Bill Clinton presided over one of the healthiest economies in recent memory, his pro-business pragmatism and emphasis on open markets are somewhat out of sync with a restless Democratic primary electorate worried about growing income inequality and wary of new trade deals.
For months, it appeared that Hillary Clinton, fighting to secure the support of labor unions and contending with Sanders and a potential run by Vice President Joe Biden, had staked out positions to the left of Bill Clinton.
The former president, for example, signed into law the North American Free Trade Agreement; in October, Hillary Clinton withdrew her support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact that Obama has championed and that she supported at the State Department.
Hillary Clinton has also pledged to do more to regulate Wall Street; her husband oversaw a period of deregulation that critics say played a role in causing the 2008 financial crises.
More recently, Hillary Clinton has proudly and frequently declared that she comes from “the Clinton school of economics.”
“Talking about the Clinton economy, evoking the success of Bill Clinton’s economy, she is positioning herself as a growth Democrat,” said Jon Cowan, a former Clinton administration official who now heads the centrist think tank Third Way.
Bill Clinton’s record does not evoke nostalgia for many liberal Democrats. In Saturday’s debate, both Sanders and O’Malley criticized Hillary Clinton for not supporting the reinstatement of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, which broke up the big banks. Glass-Steagall was partly dismantled during her husband’s administration.
“I helped lead the effort as a member of the House financial committee against Alan Greenspan, against a guy named Bill Clinton — maybe you know him, maybe you don’t,” Sanders said tartly in Saturday’s debate.
And O’Malley has invoked both Robert E. Rubin, a Wall Street veteran, and Lawrence H. Summers, Rubin’s successor as treasury secretary under Bill Clinton, as the sort of people he would not consult for economic advice.
Hillary Clinton’s advisers say any criticism of Bill Clinton on economic issues is revisionist history, and cite powerful statistics: 7.7 million people lifted out of poverty, 22.7 million jobs created, a budget balanced.
“The only time every segment of society, from the lowest quintile to the middle through the top, saw their wages growing,” said John D. Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, who was a White House chief of staff to Bill Clinton.
During the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton leaned heavily on the economic successes of her husband’s administration. (“I always wonder what part of the 1990s they didn’t like,” she would say about political rivals, “the peace or the prosperity?”)
But this time, advisers say the strategy is twofold: Hillary Clinton can bask in her husband’s economic accomplishments while trying to connect Republican policies to the 2008 financial crises that confronted Obama. “The point is, Republicans go in and screw it up,” said Joel Benenson, the Clinton campaign’s chief strategist and pollster.
Hillary Clinton often gives voters a quick history lesson covering the last 35 years.
“We’ve had five presidents, three Republicans and two Democrats,” she said at a campaign event in Urbandale, Iowa, this month. “I know both of the Democrats,” she added, sparking laughter. “I know they each inherited economic problems from their Republican predecessor.”
She often tells of Bill Clinton’s being asked, shortly after his first inauguration, what he uniquely brought to Washington. “He thought to himself for a minute and said, ‘Probably arithmetic,’” she said.
And she has derided Republicans for supporting tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, and “trickle-down” economics. On Saturday Hillary Clinton reiterated her support for the Buffett Rule, the idea, named for billionaire investor Warren E. Buffett, that the wealthiest Americans should pay income taxes of at least 30 percent. And campaign officials say she will make new proposals next month to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
At the same time, Hillary Clinton reminds voters that she is not running for anyone’s third term. “It’s not like she’s saying she’s going to do everything Bill Clinton did,” said Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress and policy director of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign. “The point is there is a broad approach, and that broad approach is very different from Republicans’.”
In Saturday’s debate, when asked what her husband’s role would be in a Hillary Clinton White House, she made clear she had given the matter some thought. “I am probably still going to pick the flowers and china for state dinners and stuff like that, but I will certainly turn to him,” she said, to provide advice on “how we’re going to get the economy working for everybody, which he knows a little about.”
And he does not mind saying so.
Bill Clinton will have the chance to remind voters about the robust economy he oversaw when he returns to New Hampshire next month to campaign for his wife.
It is a message he plainly enjoys delivering. “Let me remind you, we had one time in 50 years when we all grew together,” he said at a rally in Des Moines, Iowa, in October, waving a long finger at the crowd. “When I had the honor of serving as your president.”