Opinion | Democrats Repent for Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton was a charismatic Southern governor — extraordinarily at ease around nonwhite people and possessing a preternatural social sensibility — who became a remarkable president. He knew how to make people feel positive and hopeful, to make them feel seen and heard.

He was a gifted politician, a once-in-a-generation kind of prodigy, and many liberals adored him for it.

But Clinton’s record, particularly with respect to Black and brown Americans and the poor, was marked by catastrophic miscalculation. It was characterized by tacking toward a presumed middle — “triangulation,” the administration called it — which on some levels, abandoned and betrayed the minority base that so heavily supported him.

Two major pieces of Clinton-signed legislation stand out: The crime bill of 1994 and the welfare reform bill of 1996.

I view the crime bill as disastrous. It flooded the streets with police officers and contributed to the rise of mass incarceration, which disproportionately impacts Black men and their families. It helped to drain Black communities of fathers, uncles, husbands, partners and sons.

A 2015 New York Times Upshot analysis of 2010 census data found that there were 1.5 million “missing” Black men between the ages of 25 and 54, comparing the totals of Black men and women who were not incarcerated. According to the report: “Using census data, we estimated that about 625,000 prime-age Black men were imprisoned, compared with 45,000 Black women. This gap — of 580,000 — accounts for more than one-third of the overall gap.”

It continued: “It is the result of sharply different incarceration rates for Black men and any other group. The rate for prime-age Black men is 8.2 percent, compared with 1.6 percent for nonblack men, 0.5 percent for Black women and 0.2 percent for nonblack women.”

The 2010 figure is just a snapshot in time. It doesn’t fully account for the decades of destruction wreaked by the crime bill.

But in the last decade, the party and Clinton himself have been forced to admit the failures of the bill and to work to rectify it. As Clinton told the N.A.A.C.P. in 2015, “I signed a bill that made the problem worse, and I want to admit it.”

Part of the goal of the bill was to blunt Republican criticisms that Democrats were soft on crime, so the bill gave permission for Democrats across the country to engage in a sort of criminal justice policy and punishment arms race with Republicans, each group attempting to be more draconian than the other.

Black bodies and Black communities were the casualties of this struggle.

Then there was the welfare reform bill, which Clinton promised would “end welfare as we know it.” One of its central provisions was block-grant assistance to the states.

As Clinton said when the bill was passed:

“Today the Congress will vote on legislation that gives us a chance to live up to that promise, to transform a broken system that traps too many people in a cycle of dependence to one that emphasizes work and independence, to give people on welfare a chance to draw a paycheck, not a welfare check.”

On the day Clinton signed the bill, Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund and Hillary Clinton’s longtime mentor, released a statement that read, “President Clinton’s signature on this pernicious bill makes a mockery of his pledge not to hurt children.”

Some thought the bill had early successes. But that wouldn’t last.

As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities pointed out in 2020, the block grant to states “has been set at $16.5 billion each year since 1996; as a result, its real value has fallen by almost 40 percent due to inflation.”

Furthermore, only a fraction of the money goes to income assistance, and state-set benefit levels are low and “do not enable families to meet their basic needs,” the report outlines. It continues:

“The wide variation in benefit levels across states exacerbates national racial disparities because many of the states with the lowest benefits have larger Black populations. Fifty-five percent of Black children live in states with benefits below 20 percent of the poverty line, compared to 40 percent of white children.”

With the passage of the “American Rescue Plan,” the Democrats, alone, took another major step away from the mistakes of the Clinton legacy by increasing aid to families with children and to workers.

As The Times reported on Saturday, “Whether the new law is a one-off culmination of those forces, or a down payment on even more ambitious efforts to address the nation’s challenges of poverty and opportunity, will be a defining battle for Democrats in the Biden era.”

Either way, it is a distancing from the Clinton doctrine.

Clinton is rightly regarded a political genius, with a gift for making the complex plain — “putting the hay down where the goats can get it,” as we Southerners say — but he made some huge mistakes for which his party must repent, and that party is well down that road.

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