Republicans are delighted that Bernie Sanders has entered the presidential race, challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. No one gives Sanders, the 73-year-old Socialist senator from Vermont much chance of winning the contest. However, he may force Hillary to campaign on the sorts of leftist issues – income inequality and heavier regulations, for instance – that could prove uncomfortable and unpopular in a general election. No candidate should receive their party’s coronation, after all – not even Hillary.
That said, it turns out that the former first lady is already facing tough competition – from husband Bill. It seems that communal property can be vexing even in politics. Yesterday she delivered a speech given great attention by The New York Times and others, on the subjects of race and our justice system. Vox hailed the address as “Hillary’s Huge New Speech on Criminal Justice Reform,” practically giddy that after weeks of dishing up Pablum, the former senator finally delivered some meat and potatoes. Most reports of the speech downplayed the central irony of Mrs. Clinton’s call for lighter prison sentences and “ending mass incarceration” -- the policy she is repudiating was one initiated by Bill Clinton when he occupied the Oval Office.
Bill Clinton signed into law the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the largest anti-crime bill in the country’s history. The measure, passed in response to a record surge in violent crime like murders and rapes, provided for 1,000,000 new police officers and almost $10 billion in funding for new prisons. In 1990, there were 57,000 Americans in federal prisons; by 2000 there were 132,000. The number doing time for drug offenses – which Hillary Clinton and others have targeted – rose from 24,000 to 74,000 over that time. Over the eight years Bill Clinton was in the White House, violent crime declined markedly, to the lowest level in decades.
This is not the first important issue on which she strays from her husband’s legacy. Equally notable has been her bob and weave on the Trans Pacific Partnership – the huge trade deal that President Obama is attempting to conclude with 11 Asian nations. Hillary Clinton was a fan of NAFTA, the largest trade pact of its kind when signed into law in 1994 by her husband; a trade advocate, she voiced enthusiasm about the TPP while serving as Secretary of State. Today, as liberal organizations rally resistance to a deal they consider harmful to American workers, Hillary is waffling.
Or – consider gay marriage, where Hillary is now fully evolved, described by her spokesperson as hoping “the Supreme Court will come down on the side of same-sex couples being guaranteed that constitutional right.” That’s a far cry from Bill’s position, when he signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law in 1996, allowing states to refuse to recognize same-sex unions performed elsewhere.
There are other important policies associated with Bill Clinton, such as welfare reform, more charter schools and fiscal restraint that his wife may have to either repudiate or embrace as her campaign unfolds. Times have changed, and pressure from the left may tilt Mrs. Clinton’s playbook away from the themes that carried Bill Clinton through reelection and into the ensuing decades as one of our most popular presidents. Sanders and other potential entrants, like former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, will not allow Mrs. Clinton to coast on her husband’s coattails, which is a good thing. Voters deserve to know where the former first lady stands on the issues of the day.
Until now, she has been reluctant to reveal many hard truths, preferring to run a low-key and uninformative campaign, playing the gender card and embracing the joys of grand-parenting. Why not? A lack of competition has meant she has not had to show her hand and not been pressed on policy. Bernie Sanders could change that. As could the legacy of husband Bill.
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