Hillary and the Burden of Clintonism

The Democratic presidential candidate's proposals are increasingly at odds with the policies of her husband's administration.

Mike Blake / Reuters

Last week, in the first policy speech of her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton staked out a position on criminal-justice reform that was a direct repudiation of Bill Clinton's tough-on-crime policies.

It wasn't the first time Hillary Clinton has found herself up against Bill Clinton's record, and it likely won't be the last. As the former first lady stakes out a forthrightly liberal platform for her second presidential campaign, she is increasingly at odds with the legacy of her husband. If the promises she's making now bear fruit, a second Clinton administration could well end up reversing many of the policies of the first one.

Though the criminal-justice contrast was the most widely noticed, Hillary Clinton has already staked out multiple stances that contrast starkly with Bill Clinton's policies. This week, in Las Vegas, she laid out a set of immigration policies including "full and equal citizenship" for undocumented immigrants, protecting the parents of young "Dreamer" undocumented immigrants from deportation, and softening deportation policies. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, signed several restrictive immigration measures during his tenure, speeding deportations, increasing penalties, and making it harder for the undocumented to gain legal status. The measures were passed by the Republican Congress at the time.

Hillary Clinton recently expressed hope that the Supreme Court would make same-sex marriage a constitutional right; her announcement video even featured a gay couple talking about their upcoming wedding. Bill Clinton, in 1996, signed the Defense of Marriage Act to deny federal marriage protections to same sex couples—a law that the Supreme Court ruled largely unconstitutional in 2013.

As the campaign continues, progressives can be expected to push Hillary Clinton to take more stances that contravene Bill Clinton's record. Trade and financial regulation are two notable areas of liberal angst: Many critics blame Bill Clinton's repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act for the 2008 financial crisis, and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he championed, is frequently cited in the current debate over trade authority as an example of a bad free-trade deal. Welfare reform is another Bill Clinton compromise that many modern-day progressives reject. The Hillary Clinton of 2016 has yet to take a position on these issues, though she issued a statement expressing concern about the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Obama strongly supports the deal, and Hillary Clinton previously advocated it as secretary of state.

Tighter financial regulation, including reimposing Glass-Steagall-style regulations, is the top priority of supporters of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose fans are still hoping she will reverse herself and decide to run for president. The pining for Warren is a symptom of some progressives' continuing suspicion of Hillary Clinton, who, like her husband, has a reputation for pro-business centrism rather than bold liberalism. "A growing number of supporters are urging Elizabeth Warren to run because her actions speak even louder than her words," said Erica Sagrans, campaign manager of the Ready for Warren draft effort. "By leading the charge to create our nation's first consumer protection agency, Elizabeth Warren has shown that she can take on the tough fights and win."

What's the significance of Hillary Clinton's departures from her husband's policies? They may serve to remind liberals how frequently Bill Clinton, when he was president, was willing to compromise liberal stances in the service of getting things done—stoking Democrats' fears that, however progressive Hillary Clinton sounds now, she might not govern that way in practice. Hillary Clinton's record in the Senate was likewise that of a dealmaker, and since leaving the State Department and reentering politics, she's talked about trying to break out of the gridlock of the current era. That's going to mean working with Republicans, and potentially agreeing to deals that fall far short of the policies liberals would like to see.

Hillary Clinton's team says her differences with her husband are simply a mark of changing times. It would be silly, after all, to expect the policies of 2016 to be exactly the same as those offered in 1992. Cracking down on crime, for example, was appropriate in the 1990s, when it was an epidemic problem; nowadays, with crime down and growing concern around mass incarceration, different solutions are called for. (Supporters also note that Bill Clinton has now taken a similar stance against his old tough-on-crime policies.)

“Hillary Clinton is running on her own agenda and her proven record as a fighter for everyday Americans," Clinton campaign spokesman Jesse Ferguson told me. "Her policy ideas fit the challenges we face and the times we’re in.”

Much has already been written about the challenge Hillary Clinton faces in positioning herself against the Obama legacy. How can she convince voters looking for a change that that is what she represents when she was an integral part of the Obama administration? And how much of a departure can she call for without alienating Obama's still-loyal base of support?

Yet as Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign takes shape, the Democratic administration with which she's offering the clearest contrast isn't Obama's—it's Bill Clinton's.