“Trickle-down government” or “trickledown government” seems to be one of Mitt Romney’s more memorable lines from the October 3, 2012 political debate between the Republican presidential candidate and President Barack Obama. But he didn’t coin it. Google finds examples in political discourse going back to the 1992 presidential election.

  • Who invented the term?
  • What does it mean?
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    It goes back at least to the '92 election when both George I and Quayle used it as a retort to Clinton/Gore's criticism of "trickle-down" economics. Oct 4, 2012 at 19:15
  • @StoneyB Thank you: I have limited the Google search results based on your recollection.
    – MetaEd
    Oct 4, 2012 at 19:24
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    I wonder if anyone knows what it means...
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 4, 2012 at 19:35
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    Would whoever voted to close "General Reference" please post a link to the reputable reference. Neither Google [ define trickledown government ] nor OneLook.com locate a single reference work which defines the term.
    – MetaEd
    Oct 4, 2012 at 19:37
  • That would be me. trickle-down is in OED (see Hugo's answer), MW, AH, Wordnik, and doubtless many more; and given that meaning I submit that trickle-down government is a phrase whose meaning is the collocation of its parts. Oct 4, 2012 at 20:31

2 Answers 2



The standalone combination trickle-down is in the OED:

trickle-down adj. of or based on the theory that economic benefits to particular groups will inevitably be passed on to those less well off; also transferred as n., a filtering down (of money or ideas). orig. and chiefly U.S.

[1931 W. Rogers in Tulsa Daily World 12 July iv. 7/3 What about the old Boys here on the home grounds? Well maybe this thing will eventually reach him in some beneficial way. Lord knows what way it may trickle down to him some day.]

1944 Antioch Rev. Summer 192 In agriculture, as in business, they are devotees of the trickle-down philosophy.

1949 H. S. Truman in Sun (Baltimore) 6 Jan. 6/1 We have rejected the discredited theory that the fortunes of the nation should be in the hands of a privileged few. We have abandoned the ‘trickle-down’ concept of national prosperity.

Later quotations talk of a trickle-down tax program, trickle-down housing program, ‘trickle-down’ process, trickle-down economics and a trickle-down effect.

Trickle-down government

The earliest use I found of the specific phrase trickle-down government appears to be in the Official proceedings of the 1984 Democratic National Convention, possibly spoken by Dorothy Vredenburgh Bush:

(Applause) It is bad enough to have trickle down economics, but the real evil of this last four years is Republican trickle down government, and that is what we are going to change.

Another snippet that appears to be from a 1984 Empire state report:

... there some philosophical difference you have with the majority?

POOLER: We view the world differently. I think they engage in what I call "trickle-down regulation" to be analogized correctly to trickle-down government. They think if you help the companies, in so doing you'll be helping the ratepayers.

The 1990 George Bush: 1989 seems to contain the phrase 14 times in total, including:

He wants $150 billion in new taxes. He wants $220 billion in new spending. That is not change, that is trickle-down Government. We do not need any more of that. His numbers don't add up. Anyway, he says he's going to just sock it to the rich.


Now let's look a close look at what he offers. Chris mentioned it, $150 billion, this is for openers, $150 billion in new taxes; $220 billion in new spending. That is called trickle-down Government. It goes right from the top into your pocket. And we don't need that anymore.


And yet, Governor Clinton has already proposed $150 billion in new taxes and $220 billion in new spending. You talk about trickle down, that is trickle-down Government. Give the Government you wallet, man, and step back and let Washington solve the problem.

The phrase was used much more in 1992 by President Bush when accusing Clinton's policies, notably during the third presidential debate.

  • Do you imply that trickledown government is basically another name for trickledown economics?
    – MetaEd
    Oct 4, 2012 at 19:49
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    Yes, that appears to be the case, that it was possibly originally a mistake that caught on. From "Bill Clinton on stump, state, and stage" (1994): Bush also misspoke at times, referring to "trickle-down government" instead of "trickle-down economics" and he referred to "90/90 hindsight." While these may be small errors, in retrospect, each of these answers helps to explain the failure of the Bush presidency.
    – Hugo
    Oct 4, 2012 at 19:54
  • That's interesting. It predates the Republican use in the 1992 debates. But it does seem to me even Dorothy Bush was trying to draw a distinction. Both hers and the Republicans' use of it might imply a sort of paternalistic government philosophy rather than an economic policy?
    – MetaEd
    Oct 4, 2012 at 19:57
  • @Hugo I don't believe, in Romney's case, it was an error of conflating the names. Take a look at my answer and a relevant article called "Energized Romney again slams ‘trickle-down government’".
    – Zairja
    Oct 4, 2012 at 20:00
  • @Zairja: Yes, it probably wasn't actually an error by President Bush, especially as the one claiming it was an error was the target of the term. More likely "trickle-down government" was a play on the earlier "trickle-down economics", as a (much-repeated) derogatory label to deride the opponent's policy.
    – Hugo
    Oct 4, 2012 at 20:16

I’m no politician, but it appears this is a play on the term trickle-down economics. This is the notion that by decreasing “economic barriers”, such as tax rates on the wealthy and corporate regulations, it will stimulate economic growth. The term is often pejorative. In U.S. politics, Democrats will often employ the term (invoking its negative connotations, e.g. let the rich get richer) to describe Republican policies, whereas Republicans might use “supply-side economics”.

Romney’s turn of phrase is an attempt to flip the tables. A trickle-down government, presumably, is one where government bureaucracy grows so that benefits might “trickle down” to the masses – something Romney and his fellow Republicans are highly doubtful of (just as Democrats doubt the merits of “trickle-down economics”).

The Stimulus which President Obama signed into law would probably be an example of what Romney calls “trickle-down government” in that there is a huge investment within government itself (i.e. public spending versus “encouraging private investment” via tax breaks, subsidies, etc.) in the hopes that citizens see an improvement in their economic situation. This may or may not be flawed reasoning on Romney’s part, but that appears to be the logic.

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