- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2012

An unlikely battle for Bubba’s legacy has broken out in the presidential race, with GOP candidate Mitt Romney praising Bill Clinton’s presidency as a bank-shot way to argue that President Obama has “discarded” his Democratic predecessor’s wisdom about the end of big government.

Prominent Republicans from the time may remember things differently, but Mr. Romney’s praise of the last Democratic president could appeal to independent voters who remember the prosperity and budget surpluses of the late 1990s and the starkly different record of the current Democratic president. Mr. Romney’s tack also picks at lingering divisions within the Democratic Party between Mr. Obama and loyalists of Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

On a campaign stop in Des Moines, Iowa, last week, Mr. Romney raised eyebrows by charging that Mr. Obama had abandoned Mr. Clinton’s appreciation of limited government.

“President Obama tucked away the Clinton doctrine in his large drawer of discarded ideas, along with transparency and bipartisanship. It’s enough to make you wonder if maybe it was a personal beef with the Clintons, but really it runs much deeper.”

What Mr. Romney did not mention is that after Mr. Clinton declared that the “era of big government is over” in his 1996 State of the Union address, critics quickly contended that the beast came roaring back with a vengeance on the Democrat’s watch, supporting enough new spending to prompt the Heritage Foundation to lament just two years later that “the era of big government is back.”

It’s not just Mr. Romney who is seeking to tap the Clinton aura. Just four years after butting heads with Mrs. Clinton in a tough Democratic presidential primary, Mr. Obama gushed about Mr. Clinton in an email fundraiser offering donors the chance to meet both men in New York.

After a decade of inconsistent economic growth and a growing distrust of government under both Republican and Democratic administrations, political pros said it’s not surprising that both candidates would try to harken back to the Clinton era.

“He presided over the longest period of peacetime economic growth in modern American history,” said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic strategist. “During his administration, the economy grew, the middle class felt like it had a chance to succeed and businesses were thriving.”

Between the time Mr. Clinton took office in 1993 and left in 2001, the nation added 22.4 million jobs, the unemployment rate plummeted from 7.3 percent to 3.9 percent, and the federal government went from posting annual deficits to posting annual surpluses.

It is a rosy picture compared with the current economic news and fights between Democrats and Republicans over whether the policies of Mr. Obama or his predecessor, George W. Bush, deserve more of the blame for the soaring national debt and sluggish job growth, which has the unemployment rate sitting at 8.1 percent.

Those numbers also pushed Mr. Clinton to be the first Democrat to win re-election since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“Obama wants to be the next two-term Clinton, but Romney wants him to be the next one-term Carter,” said Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics “Obama has Hillary and Bill to make the Clinton connection for him, but Romney can point to Clinton policies — on everything from a balanced budget to the Defense of Marriage Act — that make the Republican seem closer to Bill philosophically. Plus, Romney is trying to run on the very same slogan that elected Clinton: It’s the economy, stupid.”

Mr. Romney has name-dropped Mr. Clinton repeatedly on the stump, holding his “era of big government is over” claim as proof that Mr. Obama’s economic approach is to the left of Mr. Clinton, who also signed major bipartisan welfare reform legislation in 1996.

Brian Nick, a GOP strategist, said the message could help Mr. Romney make inroads with voters who supported Mr. Clinton and then Mr. Obama, only to become disenchanted with Mr. Obama’s policies and style of governing.

“I would imagine that the Romney campaign could make inroads not only in suburban areas in states like Virginia and North Carolina, but rural areas as well,” Mr. Nick said.

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