Hillary’s Unexpected Problem: Bill’s Political Baggage

Hillary’s Unexpected Problem: Bill’s Political Baggage

© Mark Kauzlarich / Reuters

Bill Clinton is a major headache for his wife … on the campaign trail. Not because he can be wooly-headed or off message on occasion, or because he reminds us of the endless Clinton vulgarities – the money-grubbing, the sexual misbehavior, the lies, and the stealing of mementoes from the White House. But because he and his politics are outdated. 

Battling against progressive Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton has had to repudiate most of husband Bill’s  signature legislation – on trade, welfare reform and criminal justice, even as she had once championed these accomplishments. Her detachment from Bill’s legacy is perhaps more “conscious uncoupling” than divorce. Still, it is not what she (or he) expected starting out on this journey.   

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Bill remains one of our most popular past presidents, and he is a much, much better campaigner than his wife is. He helps win black voters and could help attract white men, a category not in Hillary Clinton’s camp. In addition, his favorability ratings are much higher than hers are – some 60 percent expressing approval compared to only 40 percent. Yet, she may have to leave Bill and his 1990s policy manual behind.

Bill Clinton’s recent contretemps with Black Lives Matter is a case in point. Young blacks today decry what they see as a biased justice system and hold President Clinton’s crime bill partly responsible for the “mass incarceration” of minorities. The former president, recently confronted a rowdy demonstration and stood up for the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, pointing out that it was the African American community that pleaded to get drug gangs off the streets and that begged for tougher policing.  

The confrontation was depicted as Bill defending Hillary -- in fact, Bill Clinton was defending his own legacy. Hillary, pushed by Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama, and trying to lure Super PAC money from George Soros, who has targeted this issue, has been calling for criminal justice reform for months, and especially for reducing the mandatory sentences imposed by her husband’s law. This is a change for Hillary Clinton, who as recently as 2007 opposed lightening sentences for crack cocaine offenders. That approach was meant to portray the former first lady as tough on crime, a stance to the right of other Democratic candidates.

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It is certainly a change from her position in 1994, when she celebrated the passage of her husband’s crime bill, saying to female police officers, “We will finally be able to say, loudly and clearly, that for repeat, violent, criminal offenders: three strikes and you’re out. We are tired of putting you back in through the revolving door.”  

Having to throw her husband’s legacy under the bus is an unanticipated speedbump in Hillary’s glide path to the Oval Office. She entered the race confidant that Democrats across the country would be happy to revisit the Clinton years. After several years of sluggish recovery and rising income inequality under Obama, she expected voters to fondly remember the higher growth years of 1993-2000, when the U.S. added 242,000 jobs per month.

But along came Bernie Sanders’ and Donald Trump’s crusade against free trade and attacks on the NAFTA agreement that Bill Clinton signed into law. Claims that the deal caused millions of jobs to migrate to Mexico stirred protests that trade has harmed the middle class, and in turn derailed swift passage of President Obama’s 12-nation TPP trade deal. Hillary was caught in the crossfire. 

Hillary Clinton has skittered back and forth on trade for years. In 1996, First Lady Clinton championed NAFTA, which was opposed by unions, by claiming it was "proving its worth." In 1998, in a speech to the World Economic Forum, she praised businesses for lobbying for the agreement. Later, when Senate candidate Clinton ventured to hard-pressed areas of New York State, where jobs had been lost to outsourcing, she became more critical and began to describe NAFTA as “flawed.” In 2008, Clinton said, "You know, I have been a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning. I didn't have a public position on it, because I was part of the administration, but when I started running for the Senate, I have been a critic.”

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Hillary also liked President Obama’s TPP trade agreement, which she dubbed the “gold standard” before she caved and opposed it. In her memoire Hard Choices, she calls the deal “a strategic initiative that would strengthen the position of the United States in Asia." As Secretary of State, Hillary called the agreement "exciting" and "innovative." Presidential candidate Clinton says it has not met her high standards.   

Welfare reform is perhaps the most challenging issue for Hillary. Faced with soaring welfare rolls, Bill Clinton signed into law the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, a bipartisan effort to put people back to work. On the campaign trail, Sanders has criticized Clinton for having supported the controversial bill that many think hurt poor blacks. Not only did she support it, she helped round up votes to secure its passage.

Recently, Bill Clinton defended the law, saying, “There’s no question that [welfare reform] did far more good than harm.” He admitted that “subsequent events showed it needs some improvement.” As one black educator wrote, “We know, and so does Bill Clinton, that welfare reform actually expanded the misery of the poorest of the poor. People living in extreme poverty increased more than twofold as a result of that legislation.” 

It’s hard to run against a 21st century progressive carrying the policy baggage of a 1990s president. In a campaign season full of surprises, this may be the biggest surprise of all: people do not want to return to the Clinton years.