Preaching to a choir featuring dozens of former Clinton aides and staff in Little Rock on Saturday, the ex-Pres appealed to the relative economic good times that characterized his tenure in the White House. In what may have been a shrewdly calculated move, Clinton dedicated plenty of energy towards affirming his wife’s statements in opposition to “trickle-down economics”. That term, especially when it refers to the economic policy of the Reagan administration, is almost universally derided among liberals, and opposition to it is sure to fire up Reagan loyalists among conservatives. Unfortunately, the term serves as a convenient trap for productive discussion, because neither side understands it well.

With reference to Reaganomics, the term usually refers to “supply-side economics”, the discussion of which triggers plenty of reflexive responses: conservatives point to its obvious short-run successes, and rarely admit its long-run failures. Liberals point to its long-run failures, but rarely have any idea why it failed. In the long run, Reaganomics failed miserably. But it failed for reasons precisely the opposite of those the Clintons would have you believe: not because it was “free market” or “laissez-faire”, but because it was nothing more than a rearrangement of big government policy.

“In the first eight years of trickle-down economics under President Reagan, we tripled the debt,” Clinton said in Little Rock, going on to cite Bush Sr.’s 150% budget increase. In those numbers, at least, he was honest. But Clinton did nothing very different during his Presidency: it was a matter of difference in quantity, not quality. He did not stop the growth of government. Simply by not pursuing policies as aggressively expansionist as those Reagan oversaw, he managed to slow down the rate of government growth. Clinton only looked as good as he did in comparison to his immediate predecessors, and he didn’t have to try very hard. The supposed prosperity of the Clinton era existed only in relation to prior decades of catastrophic bungling by supposedly “small-government” Republicans.

Clinton also appealed to his vaunted attempts to “streamline” government. “We reduced, thanks to Al Gore’s reinventing government initiative, I don’t know, tens of thousands of government regulations and all of that,” he told supporters. The most honest thing about that statement is his saying “I don’t know”, as we’ve lost our ability to keep track of the number of regulations “and all that”. And if Clinton meant to imply that he didn’t add to Americans’ regulatory burden, that would be a straightforward lie. Again, Clinton’s regulatory policy looks good only in comparison to the abominable job done by Republicans preceding him.

In both the cases of Reagan’s and Clinton’s policies, there was a sort of trickle-down economics in effect: money went to the political class and those most closely connected to it, and eventually the average American got some of it, after the cream had been skimmed. As founder Jeffrey Tucker has written, “The real theory of trickle down is actually advocated by the interventionists and socialists. They think that if we tax everyone and give money to the government, it will eventually come trickling down to the middle class and the poor.”

Under Reagan, tax cuts to politically connected businesses (most obviously, though not limited to, those doing business with the Department of Defense) did lead to temporary wealth creation, but the soaring tax revenue was in turn invested in economically unwise and unsustainable projects. This false economic growth, which was strong enough to be sustained through the Bush Sr. Presidency, allowed Clinton to passively ride out a bubble of government-created false prosperity for most of his tenure. Clinton, hypocritically, would have us believe that his wife’s commitment to big-government policy suggestions will return us to the glory days of his administration—”glory days” had only by virtue of Clinton’s being slightly less active than his Republican predecessors had been in the increase of government size and power. We can be assured that Hillary would not be so lacking in dedication, should she gain the Presidency.