During a heated exchange with Black Lives Matter protesters in Philadelphia yesterday, Bill Clinton let his ego overshadow his wife’s campaign message. (More)
Dear Bill Clinton,
I know you’re used to being called “Mr. President,” because we extend that title by courtesy and custom for former Presidents of the United States.
But the key word in that last sentence was “former.”
You’re not the President of the United States now; Barack Obama is. And you’re not running for President of the United States this year; your wife Hillary is.
I emphasize these obvious facts because yesterday in Philadelphia you seriously undermined your wife’s campaign message:
In a prolonged exchange Thursday afternoon, former President Bill Clinton forcefully defended his 1994 crime bill to Black Lives Matter protesters in the crowd at a Hillary Clinton campaign event.
“I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out onto the street to murder other African-American children,” Clinton said, addressing a protester who appeared to interrupt him repeatedly. “Maybe you thought they were good citizens …. You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter. Tell the truth. You are defending the people who cause young people to go out and take guns.”
“Here’s what happened,” Clinton said. “Let’s just tell the whole story.”
“I had an assault weapons ban in it [the crime bill]. I had money for inner-city kids, for out of school activities. We had 110,000 police officers so we could keep people on the street, not in these military vehicles, and the police would look like the people they were policing. We did all that. And [Joe] Biden [then senator and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee] said, you can’t pass this bill, the Republicans will kill it, if you don’t put more sentencing in it.”
“I talked to a lot of African-American groups,” Clinton continued. “They thought black lives matter. They said take this bill, because our kids are being shot in the street by gangs. We have 13-year-old kids planning their own funerals.”
That was, to put it mildly, a phenomenally tone-deaf response.
“This is an issue of policy, of accountability and of culture inside of departments”
The truth of the matter is that Black Lives Matters protesters don’t give a damn when black people are killed by other blacks unless they are cops.
A common retort to movements against police violence has been “Well, what about black-on-black crime?” – a phrase that originated in the 1980s and has been used to cite black people as the problem instead of poverty, poor educational opportunities, proximity and other factors that spike crime rates in all communities despite racial composition.
“For us it was pretty simple. We’ve been hearing these arguments going around without any data or any evidence from folks who are saying that police are killing so many people – particularly black people – because they say black people are in high-crime communities and potentially involved in criminal activity,” said Samuel Sinyangwe, another member of the [Campaign Zero] planning team.
The group compared violent crime rates from the 2014 FBI Uniform Crime report to the number of people police killed in each city this year. To confirm the findings, Sinyangwe said Campaign Zero also ran three years worth of police killing data and arrived at the same conclusion.
“This myth that people have created that community violence is the cause of police violence is absolutely false,” said Brittany Packnett, another member of Campaign Zero’s planning team, who also sat on Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s (D) Ferguson Commission. “This is an issue of policy, of accountability and of culture inside of departments.”
Those are facts backed by data, but good luck getting them heard when a candidate’s husband – a former president – seems to buy into the ‘black-on-black crime’ meme.
“A political instinct to appeal to the more negative punitive elements of public sentiment rather than to be driven by the facts”
And if Clinton and Congress reflected the punitive mindset of the American people, what they didn’t know was that soaring murder rates and violent crime had already begun what would become a long downward turn, according to criminologists and policymakers.
Nicholas Turner is president of the Vera Institute, a nonprofit that researches crime policy. Turner took a minute this week to consider the tough-on-crime rhetoric of the 1990s.
“Criminal justice policy was very much driven by public sentiment and a political instinct to appeal to the more negative punitive elements of public sentiment rather than to be driven by the facts,” he said.
“We have to look in the mirror and say, ‘look what we have done.'”
Indeed research suggests the primary factor in reducing crime since the late 1980s was getting lead out of gasoline, and that fits with other research that found a link between the installation of lead pipes in municipal water systems and rising crime rates in the early 20th century. Fact is, the 1994 crime bill did very little to reduce crime, but it did produce the Incarceration Generation:
These days, Jeremy Travis is president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. But 20 years ago, he attended the signing ceremony for the crime bill – and joined the Clinton Justice Department.
“Here’s the federal government coming in and saying we’ll give you money if you punish people more severely, and 28 states and the District of Columbia followed the money and enacted stricter sentencing laws for violent offenses,” Travis says.
But as Travis now knows all too well, there’s a problem with that idea. Researchers including a National Academy of Sciences panel he led have since found only a modest relationship between incarceration and lower crime rates.
“We now know with the fullness of time that we made some terrible mistakes,” Travis said. “And those mistakes were to ramp up the use of prison. And that big mistake is the one that we now, 20 years later, come to grips with. We have to look in the mirror and say, ‘look what we have done.'”
“The Republicans took it away and they’re blaming me, and apparently her”
Lest you stop at one blunder, you also tried to defend the 1996 Welfare Reform Act:
They say the welfare reform bill increased poverty. Then why did we have the largest drop in African-American poverty in history when I was president? The largest in history. What happened was the Supreme Court elected President Bush 5 to 4. Then all these Republicans took over state legislatures. We left them with enough money to take care of all the poor people who couldn’t go to work, on welfare. We left them with the money they had before the welfare rolls went down 60 percent. The Republicans took it away and they’re blaming me, and apparently her, when she had nothing to do with it.
But you’re ducking responsibility for bill’s entirely predictable outcomes, as the The New Yorker’s Eric Levitz explains:
One problem with Clinton blaming Republicans for “taking away” people’s welfare is that, without his law, they wouldn’t have been able to. Before the welfare-reform act, the federal government guaranteed assistance to impoverished families with dependent children who met a given set of eligibility requirements. Clinton’s law replaced that federal guarantee with block grants to the states. That allowed Republicans (and many Democrats) at the state-level to shift welfare spending away from their poorest, least politically engaged constituents. It was not difficult to predict that Republican governors would use this new authority in the manner Clinton now derides, or that a system of inflexible block grants would drive up the rate of extreme poverty.
It wasn’t merely a matter of block grants letting states “shift welfare spending away from their poorest, least engaged constituents.” Research shows that states’ use of block grants reeked of racial bias:
University of Minnesota sociologist Joe Soss spent a decade studying how those reforms shook out in the real world. With Richard C. Fording and Sanford F. Schram, he co-wrote the book, Disciplining the Poor: Neoliberal Paternalism and the Persistent Power of Race, explaining how race became a determining factor in how states created their own welfare programs – and how that ultimately led to a system that’s rife with racial bias.
[Soss:] We looked at public opinion on welfare and racial attitudes, analyzing not just the overall trends, but studying the views of actual individuals over time. And what we found was fascinating. First, not many other factors predicted who would hold those kinds of views of welfare. It was pretty broad. But the one thing that did predict a negative view of welfare was negative beliefs about African-Americans, particularly a belief in black laziness. And also stereotypes of black women as being sexually irresponsible.
[Soss:] What happened was pretty remarkable… What you see in this crucial period of recreating the system is that pretty much the only thing we could find that really drove one policy decision after another was the percentage of minority recipients on the welfare rolls at the time.
In other words, people had become so focused on racial issues that race really drove the patterning. They were not necessarily conscious of it; it was race-coded and below the radar for most people. But all of the states with more African-Americans on the welfare rolls chose tougher rules. And when you add those different rules up, what we found was that even though the Civil Rights Act prevents the government from creating different programs for black and white recipients, when states choose according to this pattern, it ends up that large numbers of African-Americans get concentrated in the states with the toughest rules, and large numbers of white recipients get concentrated in the states with the more lenient rules.
So state freedom to make these different choices became the mechanism for recreating a racially biased system across the states, where the toughness of the rules you confronted really depended on your racial characteristics.
In short, the 1996 Welfare Reform Act gave Republicans in state governments a way to make life worse for people of color and – predictably – those Republicans took full advantage of that opportunity.
“Either he doesn’t want her to overtake him, or he doesn’t want her to repudiate him.”
A wise and humble man would look at that data and concede that both the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act and the 1996 Welfare Reform Act were mistakes. A wise and humble man might admit that both laws were hamstrung by inadequate, incomplete data and race-driven rhetoric. A wise and humble man might also remind us about the rising power of conservatives like then-Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Indeed a wise and humble man might use these two disastrous laws as a case study in a much-needed lesson about civics. This hypothetical wise and humble man could explain the structural limitations of the presidency, and the resulting need to elect more – and more progressive – Democrats in Congress, their state legislatures, and their local governments. This hypothetical wise and humble man would point to these two laws, and how they played out in state governments, as clear examples of why more Democrats must vote in every election and not only in presidential years.
Instead, you indulged your outsized ego. In 2012 the Washington Post’s Suzi Parker wrote this:
That’s likely what is at play here – ego. No other politician loves attention more than Clinton, and yes, that’s saying something. While a part of him really wants to see Obama win, another part of him doesn’t. This is a man who loves to remind people that he is the only Democrat to be re-elected as president since Franklin D. Roosevelt.
At one of Monday’s fundraisers, Clinton told the crowd, “Remember me? I’m the only guy that gave you four surplus budgets out of the eight I sent.”
In a more comical email, an aide sends Clinton a story shortly before the 2012 elections speculating that “Bill Clinton’s ego could cost Obama in November.” She writes back: “What can be done?”
I wonder if there’s a part of Bill Clinton that doesn’t really want Hillary Clinton to become president, particularly if she has to distance herself from his legacy to do so. How else to explain why one of the world’s most talented and agile politicians is so consistently flat-footed and destructive when advocating on his wife’s behalf? How else to explain his terrible and destined-to-be-viral confrontation Thursday with Black Lives Matter protesters in Philadelphia?
One might attribute this repeated clumsiness to the fact that Bill Clinton is getting old; his hearing is bad, and on the trail he looks frail and wan. Perhaps he’s simply slipping, mentally. But let’s remember that Clinton caused similar problems for Hillary in 2008. There was the time he tried to diminish Obama’s victory in South Carolina by noting that Jesse Jackson won there as well. The time he described the idea that Obama had gotten the Iraq war right as “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.” The time – it hurts to remember it – when he complained that the Obama campaign “played the race card on me.”
And yet, after all that, once Hillary had lost and Bill Clinton was supporting Obama, the sloppiness ceased and he was back to performing superbly. (Witness, for example, his celebrated speech at the 2008 Democratic convention.) It is somehow only when he is working on his wife’s behalf that he veers into sabotage. What is needed here is probably a shrink, not a neurologist. Either he doesn’t want her to overtake him, or he doesn’t want her to repudiate him. Regardless, Hillary should shut him down. She can’t divorce him, but she can fire him.
Or she could remind you that you are not the current President of the United States; Barack Obama is. And that you are not running for President of the United States in 2016; she is. And I hope she will. Forcefully.
In the meantime, I’ll offer you the same advice I gave her opponent yesterday. Please study today’s logo photo. It shows you with your mouth shut. Please practice that pose … and use it while you think carefully about what you’re about to say next.
Photo Credit: Robyn Beck (AFP/Getty)