A Bill Clinton ad from '96 touting a capital gains tax cut and expanded death penalty. If he ran today his campaign would do about as well as Jim Webb's did
It is hard for me to fathom, but the 1990s are officially The Past. They are past enough that we can begin to grasp that time period in a more historic sense, and evaluate it as such. This strikes me every time I see a Seinfeld rerun while I'm flipping channels, and I wince at the clothes and hair. It struck me even more this week, of course, when Bill Clinton offered an uncharacteristically artless defense of the 1994 crime bill, which he had championed.
That bill was part of the wave of policies leading to a massive uptick in incarceration. It added 100,000 police officers to forces recently enamored with "broken windows" policing and included a "three strikes" provision at the federal level. At the time it had a lot of support across the political spectrum, and was also a typical "New Democrat" exercise in courting the middle by being so "tough on crime" as to disprove the perception of liberal permissiveness.
This was the story of Bill Clinton's presidency. His major policy moves included welfare "reform," deficit reduction, NAFTA, signing the Defense of Marriage Act, slashing bank regulations, and prison building. On the other hand, Clinton's attempt at health care expansion was such a legislative failure that it killed the chances for reform for over a decade. A friend of mine likes to joke that he was the best Republican president since Eisenhower. From Clinton's point of view this was all fine, since it resulted in the thing he cared about most: keeping Bill Clinton in the White House.
At the time it worked gloriously for him, since progressive Democrats had been taking a beating in the post-Reagan era. I still remember the 1988 election, when George HW Bush called Michael Dukakis a "liberal," as if that very fact disqualified him from being president. Clinton had few strong opponents to his left back then. I remember disliking him intensely from a left perspective, and being very lonely in that position, especially later during the Dubya years. "At least he wasn't Reagan or Bush" was what I'd hear from Democrats.
Bill Clinton's exchange with Black Lives Matter activists, and the reaction to it in social media, are a stark illustration of how times have changed. Barack Obama has governed well to the left of Clinton, and his successes despite the letdown from the expectations of 2008, have given progressives a great deal of confidence. This has also made them much more critical of the compromises of the past. Clinton's triangulation helped him keep power in 1996, but in 2016 the obvious failures of policies like mass incarceration are glaring. The bill has long come due.*
The high levels of support that Bernie Sanders is getting is perhaps the most telling evidence that we are not in the 90s anymore. As is the much more progressive cast of Hilary Clinton's policy positions this time around. Bill Clinton continually gave up bigger goals for short term gains and power in the 90s. Back then he looked savvy, but events of this week are showing that we aren't in that political world anymore, and I for am glad for it.
*I should add that the 1990s being two decades old has also made people forget that the crime bill didn't come out of nowhere. The murder rate in big cities in the early 1990s hit the highest point ever. Real people were dying in awful numbers, and people across racial lines really wanted strong action in response. This was not just a case of chasing phantoms. At the same time, the policies of incarceration were extreme, racist, and have more than outlived any usefulness they once had.