Campaigning for Hillary Clinton in New York on Monday, Bill Clinton insisted anew that the anti-crime proposals he championed during his presidency had helped and protected the black community. It was the latest example of how, when it comes to the former president and his relationship with African-Americans – it’s complicated.
So far this election cycle, Bill Clinton’s past has not hurt Hillary Clinton’s standing with African-Americans; the former secretary of state has consistently trounced Sen. Bernie Sanders among black voters, even in states where she has lost. But as Sanders steps up efforts to differentiate himself from Clinton as they enter the crucial New York Democratic primary next Tuesday, it’s become increasingly evident that her husband’s legacy is on the table as a subject of debate.
There are in effect two Bill Clintons. There is the affable Clinton, infamously labeled the “first black president” by author Toni Morrison, who demonstrated a historic comfort in black settings, routinely expressed an appreciation for African-American culture, assembled a diverse cabinet, relied on black advisers, called for a national dialogue on race, and even made a saxophone-playing cameo on Arsenio Hall’s late night talk show.
That Clinton presided over a period of economic growth for many people in the black community (although there is some dispute over how substantial that growth was) and when he left office there was a growing perception that race relations were improving. This is a direct contrast with 2016, where fears of racial tensions are on the rise. According to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll from this February, Clinton enjoys a 76 percent approval rating among African-American voters (while enjoying 56 percent overall), which could be attributed, at least in part to his presidency, which remains among the most popular since he left office in January of 2001.
But then there is the other Bill Clinton, whose policies and rhetoric may not have aged as well over time. This is the Clinton who dismissed then Sen. Barack Obama’s rise in 2008 as a “fairy tale” and implied that his victory in that year’s South Carolina primary was no more significant than Rev. Jesse Jackson’s in the 1980s. That Clinton has reared his head again in widely publicized clashes with Black Lives Matter protesters in recent weeks. The crux of these confrontations can be traced back to two controversial pieces of legislation from 1990s, which Clinton signed into law, and have increasingly proven polarizing with some progressive voters.
The first, 1994’s crime bill, was once a popular initiative with black voters (two-thirds of Congressional Black Caucus members voted for it) and it earned the support of then first lady Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who was a Congressman at the time. The legislation arrived amid calls for tougher tactics and harsher penalties on repeat offenders, during a period where crime ranked as a national concern among voters. But today, while violent crime has been down for years, the number of people incarcerated has skyrocketed, and studies have shown that African-Americans have disproportionately been placed behind bars. For instance, two years ago, 6 percent of all black men in their thirties were imprisoned, which is six times higher than the rate of of white men of the same age.
Today, even though the former president himself has apologized for the collateral damage that his legislation wrought, the language both he and Hillary Clinton used (“super-predators”) to promote it over 20 years ago has become a political football for her opponents. On Monday, while walking a ropeline at a campaign event for his wife in New York, President Clinton told reporters, “I still think what I said was right,” with regard his prior defense of his anti-crime legislation. In a April 9 sit-down interview with the New York Daily News editorial board, published Monday, Hillary Clinton added, “[H]e made the point, which I think is an important one, that we need to be talking and listening to each other.”
Then there’s the 1996 welfare reform bill (that Sanders did oppose), which was viewed as an olive branch to the resurgent Republicans in Congress (the New Gingrich-led GOP revolution of 1994 had swept in a House majority which took the reigns in 1995). The former president’s assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services resigned in protest over the law, and penned an op-ed in 1997 calling it the “worst thing Bill Clinton has done” in office. And while it has been credited with greatly reducing the number of people on welfare nationwide (from a high of 14.2 million in 1994 to 4.2 million this year), it also may have had a net negative effect on their health and plunged many others into poverty.
According to The Week, the portion of Americans living in extreme poverty (who are again, disproportionately black) has increased 150 percent since that legislation was passed, and while the bill certainly can’t be blamed solely for those circumstances, few dispute that the racially-tinged language that was used to sell it to the American people has held up well. This coupled with cuts to the budget for federal housing, alongside increases in funds for corrections facilities on Clinton’s watch, may have left a bad taste in the mouths of some black voters.
“It is difficult to overstate the damage that’s been done. Generations have been lost to the prison system; countless families have been torn apart or rendered homeless; and a school-to-prison pipeline has been born that shuttles young people from their decrepit, underfunded schools to brand-new high-tech prisons,” wrote Michelle Alexander in a Feb. 10 column for The Nation entitled “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote.”
What that piece, and many since, have done is place the responsibility for failures of Bill Clinton policies at the feet of his wife, which some would argue is problematic. On the one hand, as a very politically engaged first lady, Hillary Clinton did offer full-throated defenses of her husband’s 90s-era social policies, but on the other hand, as a candidate for president, she has pledged to curtail racially biased police practices and has advocated for an increase in the minimum wage.
“She was not Barbara Bush,” Corey Ealons, a former communications director in the Obama White House who now works for Vox Global, told MSNBC on Monday. As a first lady more in the mode of Eleanor Roosevelt, who exerted substantive influence on policy, Ealons believes it will be “difficult for her to cherry-pick” which Clinton-era legislation she supports.
Still, he argued “she should be taken at her word for the positions she stood for and her retrospective review of those positions … In the end I think [Bill Clinton] may take a break from speaking to black audiences,” said Ealons. “But over the long term I think he will be forgiven.”
As far as the Democratic race for the presidency is concerned he says “I don’t see it having an impact … at all.”