The era of (Bill) Clinton liberalism is over. What does that mean for Hillary and the Dems?

Clinton revived the Democrats partly by incorporating GOP critiques on crime, welfare and race. What comes next?

Published May 5, 2015 4:15PM (EDT)

  (AP/Mark Duncan/Jason DeCrow/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Mark Duncan/Jason DeCrow/Photo montage by Salon)

President Clinton famously told us “The era of big government is over.” The Baltimore tragedy is trying to tell us, if we didn’t already know, that the era of (Bill) Clinton liberalism is over -- just when his wife has her best shot at becoming president. In the wake of the Baltimore unrest, a stunning 96 percent of Americans polled by NBC News say they expect more urban riots this summer. Yet there’s little visible urgency around preventing that outcome.

A post-Clinton Democratic domestic agenda is essential – even if the Democratic frontrunner is named Clinton.  Intentionally or not, Hillary Clinton echoed her husband’s trademark verdict on “big government” last week when she called for “an end to the era of mass incarceration,” in a speech on criminal justice that symbolized a break from policies championed in the last Clinton administration. Whether post-Clinton politics can be pioneered by someone named Clinton will be an interesting test for Democrats in the months and years to come.

My goal is not to bash either Clinton, as we look at what did and didn’t work in the 1990s Democratic domestic agenda. (I also think it’s unfair to automatically credit or blame Hillary Clinton for the policies of her husband.) Bill Clinton was a gifted politician who cared about civil rights and poverty. He saw the way Republicans had used both issues against Democrats since the 1960s and he tried to fight it, even if he had to wade into the swamp of white backlash politics to fashion a new Democratic approach to crime, poverty and race.

His notorious “Sister Souljah” moment during the 1992 campaign; his crime and welfare reform policies; his railing against “big government;” all were tailored to reassure white people that Democrats had heard their concerns about the excesses of the war on poverty, and would incorporate the politics of personal responsibility into future efforts to promote equality. But his goal wasn’t perpetuating poverty, inequality and racism; it was forging a winning political coalition to take up a new fight against them, informed by the lessons of the 1960s and '70s. You can disagree with his tactics, but it’s indisputable that was his intent.

Eight years after Clinton left the White House, Barack Obama tweaked but didn’t reject his Democratic predecessor’s overall approach to urban poverty. Obama included a heavy dose of respectability politics in his pitch to become the nation’s first black president. It worked politically; he won twice. Yet on Obama’s watch, we’ve come up hard on the limits of the '90s approach to race, crime and inequality, not just in Baltimore but in Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island, Oakland and Sanford, Florida; in inner cities all across the country.

Tough sentencing laws and “zero tolerance” policing, we’ve seen, helped reduce violence, but they didn’t bring jobs back to the cities, and they also separated millions of black men from their families and trapped them in the criminal justice system. Draconian welfare reform slashed the welfare rolls, we’ve learned, but the number of households headed by single mothers has steadily climbed, among all races, while poverty among children persists. In fact welfare reform helped create a poverty trap, in which more than a quarter of people who work make so little they receive some form of welfare.

On the race relations front, our first black president continues to preach the importance of personal responsibility in improving black lives, even as police murder black men on camera. His opponents don’t care: they continue to stereotype Obama as a lazy, criminal-coddling, poverty pimp of old, whose policies brought about the chaos in Baltimore.

And while the Democrats updated their approach to crime and poverty, Republicans continue to scapegoat them as tolerating lawlessness and propagating suffering with a family-eroding welfare state. House Speaker John Boehner blamed Democrats for Baltimore’s troubles on “Meet the Press” Sunday. Clinton’s centrist moves didn’t help his party politically on these issues in any lasting way.

Ironically for Hillary Clinton, it’s not her but former Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley who’s on the hot seat after Baltimore, for the approach to urban crime that her husband helped pioneer. On “Meet the Press," O’Malley, who is hoping to challenge Clinton for the nomination, was confronted by one of his campaign statements from 1999:  “As much as we’d like to think poverty is the cause of crime, crime is also the cause of poverty.” A visibly pained O’Malley refused to take the blame for his city’s unrest. “We didn’t get it wrong then,” he told Chuck Todd, “but we have yet to get it entirely right.”

So far, Democrats will have two veterans of the '90s, Clinton and O’Malley, plus democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, vying to get it right. They, and we, have to learn from the past.

* * *

Post-Baltimore, there’s a vibrant debate about whether riots advance the cause of social progress or retard it, and I’ll leave that aside for now. We do know that time and again, riots serve to concentrate the nation’s attention on urban poverty. America “rediscovered” the issue last week with the Baltimore riots -- after rediscovering it when Ferguson exploded last year. As well as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina 10 years ago. Let’s be honest: It was the overblown reports of looting and lawlessness in New Orleans that focused the nation on the tragedy there, more than the hurricane itself.

But our first “rediscovery” of urban poverty, after we abandoned the issue in the 1960s, came 23 years ago, with the Los Angeles riots. Like virtually every outbreak of urban violence in the last 50 years, from Watts in 1965 to Baltimore in 2015, the 1992 Los Angeles troubles began over an issue of policing: in that case, the on-camera beating of Rodney King, a black man, and the acquittal of the four white cops who did it.

The Los Angeles unrest gave candidate Bill Clinton the perfect platform on which to showcase his new Democrat approach to issues of race, poverty and crime. Suddenly, the nation had been thrown back to Watts, literally and figuratively, the place where white backlash politics found its winning narrative in 1965. It provided Clinton with a chance to rewrite the Democrats’ story.

Watts exploded just five days after President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, and Republicans began blaming liberal do-gooders for the wave of urban riots that continued throughout the decade. Notorious Los Angeles police commissioner William Parker put responsibility for the Watts riot at the feet of civil rights advocates, claiming that violence was the predictable result when "you keep telling people they are unfairly treated." The problem, in the right’s telling, wasn’t the unfair treatment, it was the rabble-rousers “telling people they're unfairly treated.”

After Watts, the dark politics of law and order pioneered by Richard Nixon, and California Gov. Ronald Reagan, perfected white backlash politics and prevailed politically. Nixon chose Spiro Agnew as vice president at least partly because of his role in cracking down on Baltimore's 1968 riots after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Reagan updated backlash politics in 1980, leavening it with a pinch of concern the poor, as summed up by his genial and deeply dishonest lament, “We fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.” That Nixon-Reagan storyline won Republicans five out of six presidential elections between 1968 and 1992.

Until Clinton. A Democratic counter-movement emerged to answer Republicans, and incorporate some of their critique into new Democratic politics. Clinton was its best practitioner. The rhetoric he pioneered, and the policies he pushed, on crime, welfare and race, tried to take the sharp and often racist edge off the GOP approach while incorporating its “common sense” lessons, especially on crime and poverty. It worked, at least politically, for a while.

The Los Angeles riots offered Clinton a stage on which to unveil that approach to the nation. President Bush denounced the “anarchy” as “purely criminal” and never even visited the scene. Clinton toured it with local congresswoman Maxine Waters and blamed the Reagan-Bush administrations for “more than a decade of urban decay,” intensified by federal spending cuts. Bush press secretary Marlin Fitzwater blamed “the Great Society;” Clinton shot back, “Republicans have had the White House for twenty of the last twenty-four years, and they have to go all the way back to the sixties to find somebody to blame. I want to do something about the problems.”

But Clinton also found in the Los Angeles chaos the perfect way to show white voters he wouldn’t tolerate African Americans using white racism as the primary excuse for poverty and crime. His famous “Sister Souljah” moment came after the rapper defended the Los Angeles violence in 1992. “If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” she told Washington Post writer David Mills.

Few people remember that the interviewer was Mills, an African-American reporter who went on to write for “Homicide” and David Simon’s “The Wire” --  the great shows about Baltimore poverty and violence that shaped so many people’s reactions to the city’s unrest over the last week. And almost nobody remembers that Mills, who tragically died of an aneurism in 2010, was himself critical of Soujah’s remarks, writing that her empathy for the rioters had reached a “chilling extreme.”

It was Clinton who got notoriety for his much more pointed attack on Souljah – and that’s what he wanted.  “If you took the words ‘white’ and ‘black’ and you reversed them,” he said about her comments to Mills, “you might think David Duke was giving that speech.” Souljah’s remarks, he told the Rainbow Coalition, “are filled with a kind of hatred you do not honor.”

In fact Clinton’s so-called Sister Souljah moment was really his Jesse Jackson moment, designed to telegraph to white people that Democrats weren’t just the party of two-time presidential candidate Jackson anymore.

Clinton improved his showing with the white working class, but he did less well among African Americans than did Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis, getting only 84 percent of the vote where Democrats had been getting in the '90s for two decades. That was OK. Jesse Jackson had assembled the Obama coalition in 1984 and 1988, but it was 20 years too soon. Clinton briefly won back the white working class in 1992, and that’s what got him elected.

Still, it wasn’t only Clinton who brought a tougher, behavioral approach to the problems of crime and poverty back then.  Black leaders joined him in the '90s, even Jackson himself. Cornel West and Barack Obama talked about the way some among the inner city poor contributed to their own misery; West saw “nihilism,” Obama an abdication by fathers, Jackson preached “hope not dope.”

A new generation of urban leaders, black and white, incorporated a behavioral element into their politics and policy for the inner city. Even the great William Julius Wilson, who showed the way the disappearance of jobs for men without a college education created a crisis in the inner city, focused his early research on inner city poverty and single parenthood on the absence of what he called “marriageable men.” A wave of urban development projects in the late '80s and early '90s tried to meld Wilson’s jobs analysis with efforts to shore up families and fight crime.

In Baltimore, a liberal black mayor, Kurt Schmoke, partnered with moderate Republican developer James Rouse to transform Freddie Gray’s neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester, in a laudable effort that focused on housing, education and family troubles, but left out issues of jobs. Schmoke’s successor, white Democrat Martin O’Malley, an admirer of Bill Clinton, then ran on the issue of violent crime as not merely a symptom of poverty, but a cause.

What these Democrats learned throughout the '90s showed the limits of the behavioral approach to crime, poverty and race. Just as the Los Angeles riots opened the era of Bill Clinton liberalism, the trouble in Baltimore, despite years of Democratic leadership, should mark its close. Clinton, O’Malley, Sanders and perhaps others will grapple with this changed landscape.

They have one big advantage over Republicans. The GOP is still stuck in the 1980s, trying to reanimate Zombie Reaganism for the 21st century.

Tomorrow: Beyond Sister Souljah: How Democrats get beyond the stale ‘90s politics of race, and why Republicans can’t.

By Joan Walsh