Has the Democratic Party Left Bill Clinton Behind?

Does the former president have a place in his wife’s party?

Brian Snyder / Reuters

The handwringing and fretting, the gray hairs grown and pulled, the will-he-won’t-he speculation is now over: Bernie Sanders has endorsed Hillary Clinton. The Democratic party is whole again.

And yet.

Amid all the rowdy, exultant energy, the sighs of relief, and the girding for the battle ahead, one Democrat has been decidedly left out of this pretty picture of family unity—Bill Clinton. Not just because the moment belongs to Sanders and (Hillary) Clinton, but because the party belongs Sanders and (Hillary) Clinton. The Democratic Party of 2016 has left Bill Clinton behind. Worse still, it may pretend he never existed.

When she took the stage on Tuesday, Clinton announced triumphantly that she had three immediate priorities:

1) To “reform the broken criminal justice system.”

2) To “take back our democracy from the wealthy special interests.”

3) And to “make our economy work for everyone.”

It is no secret—at all—that these goals were shared by the septuagenarian socialist appearing on Clinton’s left, whose endorsement Clinton has spent months trying to secure. What is less discussed is the degree to which Clinton’s general-election platform signals a repudiation of her husband’s signature achievements.

Many argue that America’s broken criminal-justice system, at the top of Hillary’s list, was made worse under her husband, via the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. The law dramatically expanded the federal incarceration network, expanded the use of the death penalty, and increased the amount of time federal inmates spent behind bars.

Earlier in the primary season, Hillary Clinton was questioned about her husband’s crime bill (which she supported at the time), offering a mixed apology. At an April debate in Brooklyn, she conceded, “I’m sorry for the consequences that were unintended and that had a very unfortunate impact on people’s lives.”

In January, Bill Clinton acknowledged his role in exacerbating America’s prison problem—though by April he was exhausting personal capital by pushing back on the idea that he was an architect of the modern-day incarceration state, to little success. The former president’s mixed assessment of this history has only been complicated by a vicious 2016 newscycle highlighting the profound failures of America’s criminal-justice system, especially as it pertains to young black men. (I attended an event in Charleston this spring at which Chelsea Clinton—ever the peacemaker between two opposing factions—explained to a skeptical audience member that her mother had apologized for the crime bill, but if that apology hadn’t been heard in all corners, perhaps it was time to say it again—only louder. It’s hard to imagine Hillary choosing to revisit any part of her husband’s record on incarceration during this year’s general election.)

As to Clinton’s second priority— fixing the rigged financial system—her husband’s record once again proves inconvenient to his wife’s goals, if not plainly damaging. Throughout this primary season, Senator Sanders went out of his way to call for the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, the financial regulations passed in 1933 that aimed to ensure banks were not engaging in risky financial bets. Many, including former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, argue that its repeal under President Clinton in 1999 contributed to the 2007 financial crisis, (which most Americans would agree gave meaning to the very definition of a “rigged system”), though Bill Clinton has said that Glass-Steagall’s repeal had “nothing to do” with the financial crisis.

Hillary Clinton has not called for the reinstatement of the act, and has insisted the solution lies with a more “comprehensive plan” that can regulate shadowy financial transactions—but still, it’s hard to imagine her wanting to echo any part of her husband’s enthusiastically de-regulatory pronouncement upon signing the law that would repeal Glass-Steagall in 1999:

Financial services firms will be authorized to conduct a wide range of financial activities, allowing them freedom to innovate in the new economy. The Act repeals provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act that, since the Great Depression, have restricted affiliations between banks and securities firms.

As for the last to-do item on Clinton’s list—making the economy work for everyone—federal assistance is one way of ensuring that everyone has a chance at economic survival. It gets to the very core of Clinton’s focus: America’s poor and its struggling. It is virtually unthinkable to imagine the Democratic nominee of 2016 echoing the promise of the Democratic nominee of 1992, when Bill Clinton announced he would “end welfare as we know it” (and by all accounts, did). Clinton’s 1996 law turned welfare over to the states and resulted in a massive hemorrhage of 10 million low-income Americans from the welfare rolls—not because they were necessarily no longer in need, but because the states would no longer provide them assistance they once had.

On this subject of a system that “works for everyone,” perhaps more than any other of her announced priorities, Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party has moved the farthest away from the legacy of her husband. The president has lately defended his welfare reform by blaming Republican state legislatures, but when he signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, Bill Clinton sounded a lot like Hillary’s political enemies of the year 2016:

On balance, this bill is a real step forward for our country, for our values, and for people on welfare. It should represent not simply the ending of a system that too often hurts those it is supposed to help, but the beginning of a new era in which welfare will become what it was meant to be: a second chance, not a way of life.

Clinton did not use Speaker Paul Ryan’s exact phraseology about the “hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency,” but his words are pretty close to the spirit of reform championed by conservatives like Ryan who are today looking to (once again) shrink the social-safety net.

There are other landmark pieces of legislation upon which Bill Clinton acted that are now decidedly conservative when compared to his wife and her party—this election, for example, has seen the presumptive Democratic nominee take a position on trade that is well to the left of even the current president. And then there are the issues, like Bill Clinton’s support for the Defense of Marriage Act, on which the country has moved so far forward, so (relatively) quickly, that the former president’s record is controversial even in Republican circles.

So one can argue that times change, and policies change: What Bill Clinton supported in the 90s was what Democrats supported in the 90s, which was what America supported in the 90s. Americans were, as he might have it, different then. That said, this moment in American politics—more than any in recent memory—is about an affirmation of core principles. For a Republican Party riven by a long-coming split between its establishment and grassroots conservatives, the ultimate decision about what the GOP stands for may not be made until after November.

But for Democrats, this year’s talk has been about the New Deal, about inequality, about Roosevelt and LBJ, not about the triangulation and dealmaking of the 1990s. And by standing alongside Sanders, Hillary Clinton is offering her own verdict about what her party believes, where it is headed, and what is best left in the past.