National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

In the 1992 US election, Democratic strategist James Carville famously scrawled “The economy, stupid!” on a blackboard in Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Well, not quite. Clinton’s campaign wasn’t really about “the economy,” so much as empowering ordinary Americans in the face of major economic change. Election 2015 may well belong to the leader who can do something similar for Canadians.

In ’92, the US was in recession and, notwithstanding Carville’s dictum, the candidates had a lot to say about the economy. The incumbent, George Bush Sr., was giving stump speeches about free trade, lower taxes and globalization; and Ross Perot was warning Americans about the dire consequences of failing to balance the budget.

Carville’s dictum is remembered because it flagged Clinton’s decision to talk about the economy in a different way. Bush’s and Perot’s speeches may have appealed to wonks, but it left ordinary working people feeling powerless and insignificant.

After all, as Ronald Reagan had made clear, neo-conservatism left little room for ordinary people to do anything but wait for the benefits to “trickle down.”

By 1992, even this seemed unlikely. High-paying manufacturing jobs—the mainstay of the middle-class—were fleeing America to new factories in South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

For many ordinary Americans, “globalization” had come to mean little more than job losses and lower wages. People needed someone to explain how this “new economy” could work for them.

Clinton responded masterfully. While he agreed that globalization was necessary, he also insisted that education was the key to success in this new economy.

Clinton told Americans that retooling the US economy required new ways of adding value to products. To prosper they needed to work smarter. The first step was to elect a government that was willing to invest in education and give them the skills to do so.

For Americans, Clinton’s story was not only illuminating, it was empowering. It provided a new perspective on what was happening to their world and gave them a sense that they had some real control over their future.

Now let’s flash-forward to 2015 where “the economy” looks likely to be the main issue in Canada’s national election. Like the US in ’92, Canada appears to be in recession. Oil prices have plummeted and people are anxious about the future.

Will Clinton’s message still resonate today?

There is no reason to think Clinton was wrong about the transition from an industrial to a knowledge economy or that education is key to the future. However, something has changed since 1992 and our leaders need to talk more about it.

In hindsight, Clinton seems to have assumed that good ideas would be picked up automatically by businesses and put to work to help retool the economy. In this view, investment in education = innovation = prosperity.

Unfortunately, things have turned out to be more complicated—at least, in Canada. The shift from an industrial to a knowledge economy is about more than education. It is also about getting businesses to embrace new ideas—and that involves changing the way Canadians work together to build a knowledge economy.

For decades, the policy community has been deeply divided over some basic questions about economic development. Forestry, mining, fishing, oil and gas—to name only a few sectors—have been at war with the environmental movement over what is or is not allowable in a resource-intensive economy. Such disagreements can be paralyzing, as we see with the debates over pipelines and fracking.

This culture of conflict is a legacy of the old industrial era, a time when the economy and the environment were seen as distinct policy fields. That legacy must be replaced with a culture of collaboration and innovation.

This starts with a clear recognition that our natural systems have limits and that conventional thinking around the development of our natural resources must reflect this. Our governments should lead the way by working together to establish a new consensus around sustainable development.

The good news is that this discussion is well under way and progress is being made. Most industry leaders and citizens now agree on the need to balance the economy and the environment; and the premiers’ new Canadian Energy Strategy points the way ahead.

This agreement is the result of several years of effort. The premiers worked together to map out this new policy space in a way that would allow them to begin an orderly and principled conversation about the conditions of sustainable development.

Of course, the agreement is far from perfect, but that is hardly a criticism. No one expected it to stand as a charter of sustainable development. Rather, it is the opening chapter in a new intergovernmental conversation that will evolve and change over time.

The real news is that the agreement opens the door to a more far-reaching effort to arrive at pan-Canadian rules for an approach to economic development that is economically, environmentally and socially sustainable. That is the task that lies ahead.

In sum, the conditions seem to be coming together for real progress on realigning some deeply troubled relationships around a new view of the economy.

This is also an opportunity for the federal government finally to join the conversation and to provide the kind of national leadership needed to carry out this next stage of the discussion.

Our leaders should take a page from Clinton’s ’92 campaign and use this election to challenge Canadians to begin looking at their future through the lens of sustainable development—and to choose a leader who is willing to work with the provinces to take us through the next leg of the journey.

Rather than being stupid about the economy, that would be very smart.


Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate, Policy and Engagement, at Canada 2020, Canada’s leading, independent progressive think-tank. Don is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and Open Government. His recent projects include chairing an expert group on citizen engagement for the UN and the OECD; and chairing the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan 

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