Former President Bill Clinton clashed with Black Lives Matter protesters in a lengthy and heated exchange in Philadelphia Thursday over the effect his 1994 crime bill on African-Americans.
The immediate question, in political terms, is whether that will damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential effort. The former secretary of State has been winning a dominant share of minority votes, and if that stops, she could be in trouble. As we noted Thursday, the Democratic race is entering a decisive phase, and Bernie Sanders needs a dramatic change in voting patterns to have any hope of winning the nomination.
But that seems unlikely, given Clinton’s overwhelming majorities in this key party demographic, and the fact that Black Lives Matter does not speak for all African-Americans.
The deeper query, however, is “Who’s right?”
The answer to that – whether the crime bill was a mistake that needlessly incarcerated thousands of blacks, or a necessary response to a surge in urban crime – may depend on one’s generational and racial perspective.
Let’s step back and let the protest set the stage. While speaking in Philadelphia on behalf of his wife Thursday, Bill Clinton was repeatedly heckled about his crime bill and its effects. According to reports from the scene, the protesters were persistent and angry. One yelled that Mr. Clinton should be charged with crimes against humanity.
The protesters were speaking from an experience in which police violence against blacks and the disproportionate imprisonment of young black men have become enormous national issues. Rightly or wrongly, the ’94 crime bill, which expanded the death penalty, encouraged states to hand out lengthier prison sentences, and reduced federal aid for inmate education, is often cited as a wellspring of today’s US incarceration policies.
Clinton responded to the protesters by repeating the nature of the crimes the legislation was meant to address, among other things.
“I don’t know how you characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children,” Clinton said. “You are defending the people who kill the people whose lives you say matter.”
The ex-president was speaking from a remembered experience in which crime was rising, in part due to the crack epidemic, and the fabric of urban life seemed threatened. During his time in office, he defended the legislation to African-American audiences with similar logic, saying that he was trying to save their communities from social forces that were ripping them apart.
Many blacks supported him then. It’s possible older generations of African-American voters would side with Clinton, while younger generations, focused on what they see as the bill’s malign effects, would not.
What Mr. Clinton didn’t talk about Thursday was the political context in which the bill passed. At the time, the political tides were moving toward Republicans. The bill contained some provisions of which the GOP deeply disapproved, such as a ban on assault weapons. The sentencing provisions were in part a legislative compromise to get Congress to approve the entire thing.
That maneuver worked – the final bill passed the House and Senate in August, and was signed into law by President Clinton on Sept. 13, 1994. But the November midterm elections were a slaughter for the Democrats. Republicans won back control of the Senate. They took control of the House for the first time since 1952.
So that’s the context. Protesters were insisting that Clinton (and by extension his wife, who defended the bill as a means to control “super-predators”) doesn’t adequately accept responsibility for the way things are today; Clinton was responding that the protesters don’t understand the situation in which the bill was conceived and passed in 1994.
Such an argument lays bare the changes that have occurred in voters' views of politics since the Clinton administration. In 1994, such deals were not particularly unusual. Indeed, they were characteristic of how Congress functioned. Today, in a more polarized atmosphere at least partially ushered in by that 1994 election, such a compromise might be seen as partisan treachery – as the protesters' actions suggest.
Critics say this shows it’s time for Bill to get off the campaign stage because he’s actually hurting Hillary. With his occasional maladroit meanderings he’s reminding voters of the worst aspects of his own presidency.
But others suggest it is actually evidence of the Clintons' political savvy. James Hohmann of The Washington Post called it another "Sister Souljah moment" – likening it to when candidate Clinton in 1992 repudiated the comments of a black rapper who suggested it might be OK to kill white cops after the Los Angeles riots over the Rodney King verdict.
"Calling her out became legendary and helped Clinton pivot from the Democratic nominating contest he was wrapping up, when he needed base voters, to the general election, when he needed independents," Mr. Hohmann writes. "Twenty-four years later, we are at a very similar phase in the campaign cycle."
It’s true Clinton didn’t handle the protesters all that well. In the past, he’s apologized for playing any role in the rise of African-American incarceration, for instance, yet on Thursday he seemed only defensive and a bit angry.
But come on, he’s Bill Clinton. While he was never as great on the stump as people now misremember, he’s still a huge Democratic draw. That’s why the protesters chose him as their target in the first place. Disrupting other Clinton surrogates would have given them only a fraction of the coverage they’re now receiving.