Thursday, June 24, 2010

All About "The Economy, Stupid"

There's an interesting exchange between DiAnik e.g. and Andrew Sprung about how ideas work in politics.  Which I might comment about, but I was much too busy getting annoyed while reading this bit of it...first, from e.g.:
These, I think, are the methods by which public opinion may be moved:...
• A timely and effective message, repeated ad nauseam ("It's the economy, stupid;" "change")
And from Sprung:
As for "timely and effective messages," Bill Clinton's and Obama's worked because they were backed by policy prescriptions credibly purporting to address current problems. 
OK, political junkies: do you know what set me off?  "It's the economy, stupid" wasn't a message repeated ad nauseum, and it didn't "work" in the sense of persuading anyone, at least not voters.  "It's the economy, stupid" was not, in fact a Clinton campaign slogan in 1992.   Nor was it ubiquitous during that campaign.

Here's what I remember, supplemented by a quick NYT search.  At Bill Clinton's main headquarters, James Carville had posted a sign that read:

Change vs. more of the same
The economy, stupid
Don't forget health care

It was for the staff, to remind them what the campaign was about.  It was certainly not used in ads, and I don't believe the candidate ever used the phrase in public.

I searched the New York Times, and the first mention I found was a Michael Kelly story on September 1.  It's then the title of a Week in Review story on September 13, the lead in what I think is an editorial on October 11 (about campaign finance), the title of a A.M. Rosenthal column on October 30, mentioned in a news article on October 31, and then referred to in column by William Safire on November 2.  Only in the last two pieces is it referred to without describing it as a message on the sign. The tricky one is the October 31 news article, which refers to it as the theme of the campaign in the context of his stump speech.  Without doing further research, all I can say is that I'd be shocked if the phrase was part of the stump speech; given the context, it's fairly clear to me that the story (also by Kelly) is using the sign to frame the speech, rather than claiming that the speech quotes the sign.  And of course, that makes sense; within campaign HQ, the "stupid" clearly refers to campaign workers...on the stump, it would refer to voters (and why would the candidate tell voters not to forget health care?).   At any rate, that's a total of five sightings in the NYT prior to election day.

Also, in every version of it but one it's just "the economy, stupid."  The exception?  While Rosenthal gives the correct version in his column, the headline is "It's the economy, stupid."  Of course, the "it's might have originated elsewhere, but that's the only time the Times rendered it that way through election day.

For what it's worth...I was a very attentive follower of that particular election, including daily reading of the Hotline.  Maybe not cover-to-cover, maybe I missed a day or two, but that, plus TV coverage, plus whatever else was available then.  One can never trust one's memory about these things, but if you asked me about "the economy, stupid," I'd have said that it first received attention in a Ted Koppel behind-the-scenes show broadcast just after the election.  Obviously, that's not quite right; it was public from at least September 1.  But I'm fairly sure it wasn't really well known up to the last week of the election, and certainly wasn't a campaign slogan or anything like that. 

By the way, Kelly makes it clear that the Carville version was derived from an already popular expression; it didn't create one:
The language of the sign consciously echoes a sign seen above the desks of office wits everywhere: "Keep it simple, stupid."
And this concludes everything you ever wanted to know about "it's the economy, stupid."  Unless, of course, my memory and quick search are mistaken, in which case I'm sure someone will correct me.


  1. I don't have anything to add, except that I wanted to say that this was an excellent post. Writing about facts rather than about hazily remembered conventional wisdom is always a plus.

  2. I followed the '92 race closely too, and this account matches my memory of it. I would just add this: Wingnuts were already banging away at least as early as '96 about how rude and awful Bill Clinton was for going around saying "It's the economy, stupid." Not that they had any shortage of other criticisms at that point.


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