Rorschach's Crime Bill

Bill Clinton’s unforced error on the trail places the 1994 Violent Crime Act back in play.

David Becker / Reuters

“The ones that won’t let you answer are afraid of the truth,” Bill Clinton admonished protesters at a campaign event for Hillary Clinton today in Philadelphia. The protesters peppered him with questions about the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, a piece of legislation that has become wrapped up in this campaign cycle as Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders both build criminal justice promises built on dismantling parts of it. The crime bill, a signature accomplishment of his presidency and one to which Hillary has been tied, has been identified as a main culprit behind mass incarceration.

Bill’s response certainly won’t do Hillary any favors. In an 11-minute answer that wandered along a path of condescension, through tone-deaf comments, and into a difficult digression about Black Lives Matter and Africa, Clinton attempted to provide a defense for the bill and give context to the reasons why it had such broad support. He talked over protesters and attempted to play up the crowd to shout them down. His tone and talking points play especially poorly given Hillary’s early struggles in engaging with young black protesters. But even though his diatribe will be widely covered as a major misstep in Hillary’s campaign, it does provide some real insight as to why the issue of the crime bill seems to animate so much of the Democratic primary race.

In comments last year, Bill expressed real regret over the outcomes of the act. “I signed a bill that made the problem worse,” Clinton said. “And I want to admit it.” His statements today were not necessarily a full repudiation of that contrition, but definitely a walk-back: He regrets some of the outcomes, but not his decision-making process. Clinton used much of the same language as he did in 1994 to defend the bill. He also gave somewhat baffling defenses of the efficacy of the bill, claiming massive decreases in crime that were directly attributable to its penchant for incarceration. This is probably not true.

When pressed on the harsh sentencing laws in the act, Bill gave the standard defense. “I talked to a lot of African American groups, he said. “They thought Black Lives Mattered. They said ‘take this bill’ because our kids are being shot in the street by gangs.”

Clinton is right in many senses. The act was pitched in exactly the same way to black groups in the 90’s and many of them accepted it as an ugly, scorched-earth tactic, that was necessary to bring down immense crime rates in black neighborhoods. The coalition was broad, and much of the current Democratic leadership class, including Sanders and Vice President Biden, was prominently involved. As Clinton noted in the speech today, that crime bill also contained several less-controversial provisions that are still widely embraced today by liberals, such as the assault-weapons ban, overtures toward community policing, and the Violence Against Women Act. Hillary was not directly connected to the crime bill’s passage, but her strong support of it on the trail, including ex post facto racial fear-mongering about “super-predators” has earned her the ire of many criminal-justice activists.

As she and Sanders both sprint away from the crime bill, pushing plans to end mass incarceration, it binds both of them, especially informing the age and racial differences between the two campaigns. Sanders has explained his support of the bill as a reluctant compromise that allowed him to press for reforms to the death penalty, assault weapons, and domestic violence, despite its other problematic provisions. He seems to have been forgiven by young voters, who are likely more apt to see the bill as an abject failure.

Hillary Clinton’s relationship with the crime bill is more complex. Her coalition might be the coalition of voters that wanted it: older white and black voters in rural areas and black urban centers. While she has fully wrapped herself in the mantle of reform, promising to roll back the bill’s terrible effects, I suspect some of the old ideas about its necessity still linger among her base, even among the black voters. The tie to Bill Clinton’s legacy is strong, and many older voters still remember him—rightly or wrongly—as a president who brought order out of a drug-fueled crime wave. In some places, there is a strong generational divide about the necessity of Black Lives Matter, which arose as a sort of generational blowback to the crime bill, even among black people. Reports of Sanders’s struggles to hold older black audiences captive with his criminal-justice message roughly outline this divide.

Of course, the crime bill is easily regarded today as bad, racist policy. Even though—as Bill noted in his speech—state and local prisons are responsible for most of the incarceration epidemic, the federal government still plays an immensely important role in setting the national-policy table, and federal laws do interact with state laws to amplify incarceration. And Clinton’s justifications don’t quite hold up, as many of those who joined the coalition did so begrudgingly and with on-the-record reservations. Nor were liberals and black people unanimous on the issue. A group led by Reverend Jesse Jackson, who has long had ties to both the Clintons and Sanders, denounced the bill in no uncertain terms, foreseeing its effects on incarceration.

It seems the best way to describe the 1994 crime bill is that it was a tragedy of groupthink produced under the pressure of real, imminent dangers. The need to fix a crisis gave way to an awful policy that—as awful policies tend to do—further marginalized poor people and people of color. Younger voters, especially younger black voters who are seeing its effects up close, don’t have to grapple with the legacy of a mistake. They react to what they experience, which is a clearly bad policy. But Bill Clinton’s own attitude toward the bill displays the struggle that must be happening for many of those in the original coalition. Even Dr. Frankenstein couldn’t bring himself to kill his monster.