Crime, Clinton and a New Era
Now, as the streets of Baltimore erupt in protests, and questions about race, poverty and the prison population suddenly tower over the political landscape, the halcyon years of the tough-on-crime Bill Clinton administration look less idyllic.
Mrs. Clinton delivered a poignant assessment of the cycle of poverty and incarceration on Wednesday in addressing the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers. But the most striking part of her speech was the unsaid but implicit rebuttal of her husband’s 1994 crime bill, which flooded America’s cities with more police officers, built dozens of new prisons and created tougher penalties for drug offenders.
Indeed, in her call to “end the era of mass incarceration,” she appeared to take an important step toward redefining what it means to be a Clinton Democrat.
If the centrist policies of the Bill Clinton years were known for stepped-up policing and prison building, deficit reduction, deregulation, welfare overhaul and trade deals, Mrs. Clinton is steering her early candidacy in the opposite direction, emphasizing economic populism, poverty alleviation and, in the criminal justice system, rehabilitation over incarceration.
Two decades ago, Mr. Clinton urged the poor to take personal responsibility and embraced wealthy corporate leaders, who create jobs, as an important part of the solution to poverty. Now, Mrs. Clinton wants government to help working families with everything from child care to college debt. And though she has long been attacked from the left as overly solicitous of Wall Street, she has not minced words of late in blaming the wealthy for an economy that, she says, has left too many people behind.
“How many children climb out of poverty and stay out of prison?” she asked Wednesday. “That’s how we should measure prosperity.” She added: “That is a far better measurement than the size of the bonuses handed out in downtown office buildings.”
How Mrs. Clinton will define her political philosophy is still very much an open question — not only because she is not her husband, as her supporters note, but because the times, and the country, have changed.
When Mr. Clinton first ran for president, Democrats had lost five out of the previous six presidential elections. Crack cocaine was ravaging American cities, and Democrats were freshly scarred by the Willie Horton ad with which the elder George Bush portrayed Michael Dukakis as soft on violent crime.
Today, an attack ad seeking to touch an emotional chord with voters could conceivably feature a rogue police officer victimizing a black man.
Then, the electorate was more than 80 percent white, and Democrats battled a reputation as soft on crime and too willing to give “handouts” to welfare recipients. Mr. Clinton, calling himself a “New Democrat,” promised to put more police officers on the streets and end a cycle of government dependency associated with the poorest Americans.
“The distance between 1968 and 1992 is the same distance between 1992 and today,” said Matt Bennett, a former Clinton administration aide and a senior vice president at the centrist Third Way think tank. “Would Bill Clinton do what L.B.J. did?”
Still, Mrs. Clinton confronts the delicate task of distancing herself from policies that as first lady she either supported or dutifully stood behind.
In 1996, for example, Mrs. Clinton angered activists including her friend Marian Wright Edelman, with whom she had worked at the Children’s Defense Fund, when she stood by her husband’s overhaul of the welfare system, which cut federal assistance to the poor by nearly $55 billion over six years.
But while Mr. Clinton’s brand of politics was closely associated with the strategist Al From and his centrist Democratic Leadership Council, Mrs. Clinton’s economic approach in 2016 has tilted discernably to the left. Whether she is being pulled there by Senator Elizabeth Warren and others, or is following her own natural inclinations, Mrs. Clinton is steeping herself in liberal thinking, thanks to advisers like the progressive economists Joseph E. Stiglitz and Alan B. Krueger.
“You’re seeing a wide group of prominent Democrats more or less articulating this question” of economic inequality, said Felicia Wong, president and chief executive of the Roosevelt Institute, a liberal think tank with which Mr. Stiglitz is affiliated. “Whether they’re collectively the new Democratic Leadership Council, I don’t know.”
Still, Mr. From argued in an interview that, though the circumstances had changed, Mrs. Clinton’s underlying goals were no different than those of her husband’s administration.
“The context was different on poverty and crime in the cities,” he said. “But the central tenet of our philosophy was that nobody in America should work full time to support a family and be poor.”
Bruce Reed, who was Mr. Clinton’s chief domestic policy adviser, said centrism on crime and welfare, in a word, worked: “It was more important to make progress than to just have a debate that went nowhere.”
Both the poverty rate and violent crime rate fell significantly during the Clinton years. But as the crisis in Baltimore has laid bare, some policies that showed success at the time have since had an adverse impact. And Mrs. Clinton’s supporters say she will not shrink from acknowledging as much — on crime, the economy, or a range of other issues.
“They understand what has been happening in this country, not only in the lead-up to the financial crisis in 2008, but the causes of that bubble,” said Ms. Wong, who was a fellow in Mr. Clinton’s White House. “She and her team really recognize that some of those policies just didn’t work out.”