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This week, the presidential campaign has been dominated by debate over the federal welfare overhaul of 1996. It's just the latest example of how both sides are trying to use the Clinton years to their advantage.
As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, Democrats and Republicans are portraying the Clinton administration as a halcyon golden age.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
As long as Bill Clinton has been on the public stage, there have been people of both parties willing to say negative things about him. But this year, even high-profile Republicans are waxing nostalgic about the Clinton years. This was Newt Gingrich on CNN after Democrats announced that the former president will have a prime speaking spot at the convention.
NEWT GINGRICH: President Clinton got four consecutive balanced budgets. President Obama has had huge deficits. So I think having Bill Clinton there is going to remind people of a Democrat they used to like, and may in fact shrink Obama by comparison.
SHAPIRO: On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney has been applauding the Clinton welfare program as an accomplishment for the ages. Here he was in Illinois this week.
MITT ROMNEY: One of the things that happened in the last couple of decades was one of the greatest bipartisan successes we've seen. And that was President Bill Clinton and Republicans coming together to reform welfare.
SHAPIRO: Republicans who praise Bill Clinton can show that they are not mindless partisans. It's a way of saying: There are Democrats I like, just not the one in office right now. Of course, the Democrat in office right now has tried to co-opt Clinton's legacy, too.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My theories have been tested. Last time they were tried was by a guy named Bill Clinton.
SHAPIRO: On the campaign trail, Barack Obama makes it sound like he's running to continue the Clinton administration.
OBAMA: And that's why I'm running for a second term as president of the United States, to go back to what works.
SHAPIRO: There's a simple reason for all of this Clinton hagiography.
ANDY KOHUT: Well, he's clearly popular among independents and relatively popular among Republicans, as well.
SHAPIRO: Andy Kohut, of the Pew Research Center, says today both presidential candidates are less popular than Bill Clinton. And Americans look back on his presidency fondly.
In the mid-1990s there were no big wars, the economy was booming.
KOHUT: A majority of people rated the shape of their family finances as excellent or good. It was 56 percent. Today, only 41 percent do that.
SHAPIRO: But it could be a risky strategy for both parties because Clinton is not just a symbol. Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution worked in the Clinton administration and knows full well that the man can throw a curveball.
BILL GALSTON: Bill Clinton, because he's a living, breathing human being, will continue to talk. And as we've seen on different occasions, the longer Bill Clinton talks, the more likely it is that something interesting, in the political sense, will come out of his mouth.
SHAPIRO: Something interesting came out of his mouth on CNN in May, a comment about Mitt Romney that left the Democrats shouting: Cleanup in aisle Clinton.
BILL CLINTON: There's no question that in terms of getting up and going to the office and, you know, basically performing the essential functions of the office, a man who's been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold.
SHAPIRO: And Republicans who mischaracterize the Clinton years might have to deal with the former president himself weighing in, as he did this week on the welfare debate.
In contrast, when people deify Ronald Reagan, there is no chance that The Gipper will rise up from the grave and veer from the talking points.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News.
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