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Are We Too Hard on Bill Clinton?


Given that Hillary Clinton is running for President this year, and she and her husband have worked as a team throughout their careers, the Bill Clinton Presidency of the ‘90s is now being revisited, with particularly harsh critiques by today’s progressives.

New York Magazine writer Jonathan Chait–yes, that Jon Chait–says we’re being too hard on ol’ Bill. Kids today simply fail to understand just how tough it was to be a Democrat in the 1990s. Chait writes:

It’s impossible to understand Bill Clinton’s political strategy without appreciating the desperation of the circumstances he and his party faced when he ran for office. The vaunted New Deal majority built by Franklin Roosevelt had collapsed in the 1960s, and the cause of its death was race — specifically, the perception that the Democratic Party had come to represent black interests at the expense of white ones. Republicans won every presidential election from 1968 through 1988, the sole exception being Jimmy Carter’s razor-thin 1976 victory, propelled by the overhang of the Watergate scandal, and bereft of progressive domestic accomplishment. “These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics,” [concluded]( pollster Stanley Greenberg, who met with voters in the Detroit suburb of Macomb County to understand why they had flocked to the Republican Party. It did not seem at the time that liberalism was merely in the midst of a historical pause between spurts of activism. It seemed that liberalism was completely dead, and Reaganism, which spoke for the growing Sun Belt, owned the future, and the main question in American politics was the speed at which the welfare state would be dismantled.

Here, Chait argues that Clinton’s actions are defensible because the alternative was so much worse. History indeed rhymes in that we are being presented with a similar bargain this time around, at least if you take some Hillary Clinton boosters at face value. Personally, I don’t object to such tactical voting choices. They are a necessity in a political system that presents us with finite options. If you must choose between a debilitating injury or a fatal one, being alive is generally still preferable. Had Chait stopped there, I might not have objected too much. 2016 is not 1996; the American political landscape has changed. But Chait goes on:

Greenberg worked for Clinton, who set out to build a party that could continue to represent African-Americans while also winning enough white voters to assemble a majority. That was the message sent by Clinton’s embrace of welfare reform and a crime law, his repudiation of Sister Souljah and his [execution]( of mentally disabled murderer Ricky Ray Rector. Clinton did not fully or even mostly capitulate to racism. He vetoed two previous, more draconian welfare bills before ultimately signing the third, which he deemed “a decent welfare bill wrapped in a sack of shit.” He likewise appointed the most diverse administration in history to that point, and defended affirmative action against Republican attempts to abolish it.

Is there some deranged sense of humor at work here in the suggestion that executing a disabled man was necessary to shore up Clinton’s moderate support? Are we really to accept the argument that Clinton had to take these steps in order to gain power, keep it, and accomplish a few good things along with the “sack[s] of shit”? I fully agree that Clinton was between a rock and a hard place on many of these issues. Republicans controlled Congress and could reasonably be said to have a mandate. But Clinton had a mandate, too. I have written before about the particular troubles this kind of legitimacy crisis can create, and it played out pretty much as expected during the Bill Clinton years. I am certainly not without sympathy to the difficulties of his position.

Once again, I could kind of see Chait’s point, even if I had some niggles with it. Then he changes course to discuss his real point: that the Rodney King beating, the riots that followed the acquittals of the officers who beat him, OJ Simpson not being found guilty of murder, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas escaping sexual harassment charges managed to construct a narrative of race in America in which black people engage in criminal behavior at all levels of society and then get away with it by playing the “race card.” Chait takes pains to note that he’s not suggesting this is what really happened, merely that he is describing the perception of white America, but then what an indictment of white America he has presented.

To take Chait’s point as given, Bill Clinton had to implement policies that were destructive toward the black community because white Americans are otherwise so racist, there was no other way for him to stay in power–and Republican alternatives would have been dramatically worse. Essentially, we are meant to forgive Bill Clinton for throwing vulnerable people under the bus for the sake of his career and his party. We are meant to forgive Bill Clinton for merely doing what it took to placate white people reared on a steady diet of racism.

It is perhaps fortunate, then, that the day is soon approaching when what those same white voters want will no longer matter, because they will not be numerous enough to swing Presidential elections. Trump hopes to capture a victory this year by appealing to that subset of Americans, and already his poll numbers indicate that this is a losing strategy. Demographics cannot be talked down or lied out of existence, and democracy cuts both ways.

Chait closes with a mishmash of truth and nonsense:

The implicit lesson of all these cases at the time was that racism has less force than the reaction to it, that crying racism is a powerful card that African-Americans can play when it suits them. That lesson, to be perfectly clear, is wrong — or, at least usually wrong, in that the situations in which it holds true are the exception, and pervasive structural racism the rule. But, as the saying goes, hard cases make for bad law. (That is, rules created in response to unusual circumstances are unlikely to work well for normal circumstances.) The same holds true for public opinion. Clinton was attempting, fitfully, to move middle America past its post-'60s racial-backlash phase, and outside events did not give him much help.

Lost in all this is the fact that a major distraction of the Clinton years was Clinton’s own extramarital dalliances and, to put it bluntly, abuses of power. There is no other way to describe his illicit relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky, about which Clinton lied repeatedly and which led to his own impeachment. And the Republican witch hunt against him was certainly that, but it is entirely upon Bill Clinton that he emitted enough smoke to draw his enemies to the fire. Rodney King, OJ Simpson, and Clarence Thomas didn’t destroy Clinton’s credibility–Clinton himself did. That he was so surrounded by foes determined to ruin him is a crucial piece of context, but to whatever extent he lost respect and lost the capacity to lead the American people, he bears a large share of that blame. For Chait to claim now that it was racist white people, spurred on by race-baiting black people, who forced Clinton to the center is appalling revisionism, an execrable hagiography of a serial philanderer with a notorious temper.

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