When Democrat Bill Clinton launched his first White House bid in 1992, his party had lost three presidential elections in a row – all by lopsided margins. He won that year and again in 1996 by moving the Democratic Party closer to the center and co-opting the Republicans’ agenda by taking the lead on everything from welfare reform to get-tough crime legislation.
On Thursday, as an older Clinton asked Democrats at a Rock Hill rally to help his wife, Hillary Clinton, win big in Saturday’s South Carolina presidential primary, he found himself appealing to a Democratic Party that has veered to the left since his years at the White House.
And in 2016, some of the stands and speeches and legislative accomplishments that are part of Clinton’s legacy have become controversial, even unpopular, as the former first lady runs for president on a left-leaning platform and a pledge to continue the work of another Democratic president – Barack Obama.
“Hillary Clinton is clearly not running as a Bill Clinton New Democrat,” said Todd Shaw, a professor of political science and African-American studies at the University of South Carolina. “It actually benefits her more to run on Obama’s legacy than on her husband’s.”
But even as a new Clemson University poll suggests Hillary Clinton’s popularity with African-American voters will likely give her a landslide win in South Carolina, some black activists and scholars argue that she and the former president should be held accountable for a 1990s-era crime bill that has led to massive incarceration of black men.
“Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote” is the title of an article this month in The Nation by Michelle Alexander, whose book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” has helped make prison reform a bipartisan issue in the 2016 presidential race.
She argues in her article in the liberal magazine that the crime bill and the welfare reform pushed by Bill Clinton – and supported by his wife – “decimated black America.”
And on Wednesday night, a young “Black Lives Matter” activist from Charlotte managed to attend a private event for Hillary Clinton in Charleston. Ashley Williams interrupted the candidate’s speech and demanded an apology for the high incarceration rate for African-Americans.
In a YouTube video of the confrontation, which drew national attention Thursday, Williams asks Clinton to explain her comment in 1996 that some black criminals were “super predators” and that “We have to bring them to heel.” Williams held a banner up during the event with the latter quote.
Clinton initially tells Williams, “We’ll talk about it.” But when Williams continues heckling, Clinton says, “Do you want to hear the facts or do you just want to talk?”
Williams told the Huffington Post that the Secret Service escorted her and another activist out of the event.
On Wednesday in Columbia, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s liberal rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, also tried to tie her to her husband’s record. He charged that she had played a role in winning support in the 1990s for a welfare reform bill that he believes increased the ranks of the poor – an accusation Bill Clinton called unfair in an interview with Politico.
With many young people – including many African-Americans – passionate in their support for Sanders, there is more than a little tension in the fight for the chance to succeed Obama.
“It’s indicative of the fact that the Democratic Party has moved to the left,” said Andrew Taylor, a political scientist at N.C. State University. “There’s been a lot of talk about the Republican Party moving to the right. But the Democratic Party is also shifting. … The 2016 campaign is a sort of retreat away from the Clinton legacy of the 1990s.”
On the trail, Hillary Clinton has urged an end to “the era of mass incarceration” and has repudiated much of a 1994 crime bill signed by Bill Clinton.
On Thursday, as Bill Clinton kicked off a series of get-out-the-vote rallies at a black church in downtown Rock Hill, he echoed his wife’s comments, calling for prison reform and for police departments to become more diverse and more involved in community dialogue.
The former president’s only reference to the 1990s environment that led to a tough crime bill came when he told the crowd of several hundred: “When I ran, the big problem we had was gang violence and people being shot in the street. It was important to put more police on the street.”
He also lauded Obama’s record, suggesting at various points that the current president was building on his legacy just as Hillary Clinton, if elected, would build on Obama’s.
Introduced by S.C. Rep. John King as “the next first gentleman of the United States,” Clinton contrasted his wife’s message “to make America whole again” with Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s call for building a wall at the Mexican border.
“We shouldn’t build a wall around our country,” Bill Clinton said. “We should tear down all the barriers and build ladders we can all climb.”
Based on interviews with several Democrats at the Rock Hill rally, Bill Clinton – still a popular ex-president – is an asset for his wife’s campaign and many feel it’s time to forgive those aspects of his record that look worse today.
For Churise Turner, 38, an African-American who’s a social worker at Freedom Temple Ministries, Bill Clinton remains charismatic and is still “like one of the family.”
As for his past support for longer prison sentences, “there’s always room for change,” she said. “And Hillary can rectify (that past). President Obama has started (prison reform). She can pick up the torch.”
Hillary Clinton supporter John Kraljevich, 38, a Fort Mill, S.C., coin dealer who is white, said “none of us” – including Bill Clinton – “have perfect 20-20 foresight. It’s easy to criticize. He probably regrets the way some things have turned out. Efforts to reduce crime were probably needed then. It was a different time. Now we can look at the injustices inherent in the sentencing system.”
Taylor of N.C. State said having Bill Clinton campaign for Hillary Clinton may be her subtle way of reminding voters “that she’s had experience with the White House and was part of a successful time for the Democratic Party.”
And while “the protesters are going to keep the heat on Hillary Clinton,” said Shaw of the University of South Carolina, her most loyal backers – African-American voters – will be pragmatic “about taking the good with the bad in the Clinton legacy.”
In other words, he said, “we know we can influence the thinking of Hillary Clinton. We have no illusions about moving the other (Republican) side.”