Beyond Sister Souljah and Zombie Reagan: How Dems can move past the stale '90s politics of race, and why Republicans won't

Baltimore shows the need for new ideas, but the GOP clings desperately to Ronald Reagan and Charles Murray

Published May 6, 2015 9:59AM (EDT)

  (AP/Tannen Maury/Rogelio V. Solis)
(AP/Tannen Maury/Rogelio V. Solis)

This is a two part series. Read part one here.

If the 1992 Los Angeles riots opened the era of (Bill) Clinton liberalism, the Baltimore unrest marked its close. Los Angeles gave Clinton his famous “Sister Souljah” moment, which told white voters that his party would no longer merely blame racism for the troubles of the African-American poor. Getting tough on crime; pushing through welfare reform; calling for “a new conversation on race”; Clinton believed he could update the idealism of the 1960s with the lessons of 1980s Reaganism, and do well politically while also doing good.

The Baltimore riots 23 years later show us the stark limits of that approach. The 2016 Democratic presidential primary offers the party a chance to debate a post-Clinton agenda, even if the front-runner is named Clinton, while Republicans cling to a warmed-over Reaganism that blames poor people for their poverty.

Look no further than the fact that the moderate establishment “front-runner,” Jeb Bush, lazily cited author Charles Murray as his go-to read on the issue of poverty just last week, as Baltimore continued to boil. Murray, you’ll recall, was the faux-intellectual guru of Reaganism, the “scholar” who justified Reagan’s persuasive lie that “we fought a war on poverty, and poverty won.”

Later, in “The Bell Curve,” Murray added another reason that government programs couldn’t cure poverty or eradicate racial inequality: because non-whites are genetically inferior to whites. That’s the man the leading GOP candidate credits with informing his thinking about poverty.

So while one party grapples openly with the limits to the legacy of their most influential politician, Bill Clinton, the other refuses to acknowledge that the man who shaped their domestic agenda, Ronald Reagan, is long dead, and a lot of his ideas should have died with him. 2016 will offer the nation a starker choice on these issues than any election in recent memory, and that can only be good for the country.


Luckily, perhaps, for Hillary Clinton, the Baltimore unrest became a political headache less for her than for a potential rival, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who served as Baltimore mayor from 1999 to 2007 and has found himself blamed for the over-criminalization of black men thanks to his zero tolerance approach to policing. The number of arrests in Baltimore soared to over 100,000 in 2005 – it was 40,000 last year – and the city was sued by the NAACP and the ACLU for throwing thousands in jail without warrants, only to release a lot of them without any charges.

But O’Malley wasn’t alone; all across the country, mayors were touting their tough on crime approach in the '90s and early 2000s. And for a time, they were able to say, as O’Malley did, that they were responding to the desperation of their black constituents. It’s important to remember that '90s liberals weren’t just opportunistically channeling white backlash politics when they got tough on crime; they defended it as looking out for the poor, who are most often the victims of urban crime.

It wasn’t just whites who were disturbed by the excesses of crime and disorder in the '70s and '80s, it was African-Americans too. Clinton and other reformers of the era could walk through any inner city neighborhood and find people who applauded what came to be called the “broken windows” approach to policing: Why should poor black people put up with vandalism, garbage, graffiti and petty crime that a white middle class neighborhood would never tolerate? It was framed as a matter of fairness. That was O’Malley’s pitch when he ran for Baltimore mayor in 1999, and he won 91 percent of the vote.

I’d walked the streets of West Oakland with Jerry Brown the year before and watched as he was embraced by its low-income black residents as well. Brown would become a convert to police strategies Bill Bratton pioneered under Rudy Giuliani in New York, especially his CompStat emphasis on data. Nobody could see then that the effort it took to prevent “broken windows” would ensnare more black men in the prison system – and cost some their lives at the hands of police. Liberal wonks like O’Malley and Brown believed their focus on numbers promised “transparency;” it turned out we couldn’t see into the back of a police van, where Freddie Gray suffered fatal injuries at the hands of Baltimore police.

The new “zero tolerance” strategies did help bring down violent crime; O’Malley estimates 1,000 Baltimore black men are alive who would have been murder victims if not for his crackdown. Violent crime in Baltimore fell more than in any other city on O’Malley’s watch. But this approach, which ironically focused on “quality of life” crimes, did not improve the quality of life of many of these men, who are now under the control of the criminal justice system – even if it kept them alive. As Hillary Clinton and O’Malley both observed last week, it’s time for a new approach to urban policing, but they’ve yet to lay out what it is.


But the chaos in Baltimore didn’t merely show the limits of '90s approaches to crime. It reminded us that Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform effort didn’t do a lot of what it was intended to, either: It failed to stop the ever-rising incidence of single-parent families, among whites as well as blacks, and it didn’t reduce child poverty in a lasting way. Welfare rolls fell by half between 1996 and 2000, when Clinton left office, and for a while, child poverty rates fell, too, largely as a result of the booming economy. But poverty among children has increased ever since, and the rate is higher now than it was when welfare reform passed.

On a Web site that touts the accomplishments of the Clinton administration, I found a strange boast: “People on welfare [in 2000] are five times more likely to be working than in 1992,” when Clinton took office. Welfare reform served to push poor women into the low-wage labor force, where they’re buoyed by food stamps, Medicaid, child care aid and the expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, which has been expanded by every president since Gerald Ford signed it into law. Yet they still live in poverty, or just over its border – and taxpayers are footing a lot of the bill while employers enjoy their underpriced labor.

Today a quarter of people who work make so little they also receive some form of welfare – including 52 percent of families headed by fast-food workers. More than 60 percent of adult food-stamp recipients have jobs. Obama’s Council on Economic Advisors chair Jason Furman famously lauded this development in a 2005 paper: “Walmart: A Progressive Success Story,” which praised Bill Clinton for presiding over “the transformation of our social safety net from a support for the indigent to a system to that makes work pay…” and lauded Walmart’s commitment to low prices as a boon for the working poor. (Hillary Clinton, you’ll recall, served on Arkansas-based Walmart’s board.)

Those 1990s policies helped create a poverty trap, where workers labor in low-wage jobs indefinitely, and government subsidizes their employers and ameliorates their misery. But they were the result of a bipartisan consensus in the 1990s that a job, any job, was better than welfare. And again: It wasn’t cruelty that spurred some liberals to come around to welfare reform. The isolation of America’s urban poor in crumbling ghettoes where work had “disappeared,” in the words of William Julius Wilson, made connecting people to the workforce, not merely to welfare, seem like an economic fairness issue.

There was one final benefit to Clinton-era crime and welfare reforms: They promised to take the issues off the table politically, to let the nation move from focusing on the character flaws of the poor to a work-centered agenda that would help lift them out of poverty. But it didn’t work.

Clinton’s approach to race and poverty allowed Democrats to advance at the time, but it certainly didn’t take those issues away from Republicans. They’re still race baiting, just as if welfare reform never happened; remember Mitt Romney falsely claiming in 2012 that President Obama had gutted the work requirements Clinton had imposed on welfare recipients? Or Newt Gingrich calling Obama “the food stamp president?” Meanwhile, the Democrats’ aversion to government meant they couldn’t tell the story of how government policies created the white middle class -- often while intentionally suppressing the black poor.

Now comes the reckoning, just in time for a presidential election in which Democrats will be choosing among a field that includes Clinton’s wife, democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, and perhaps the Baltimore mayor who brought Clinton liberalism to a struggling city, O’Malley (among others). It could be an interesting race, in policy terms, even if Clinton remains the runaway favorite politically.

O’Malley says that if he runs, he’ll run on his record in Baltimore, which would provide a welcome, specific focus to discussions of a post-1990s urban policy. Clinton is clearly committed to being more than a Walmart Democrat, but we’re still waiting for her full policy agenda to combat wage stagnation and the decline of the middle class. Socialist Sanders might actually make Americans realize that Republicans are liars when they call Clinton and Obama socialists – and force a real debate on economic inequality. It will be a great relief to see a Democrat who’s unapologetic about the role of government in creating a more inclusive economy.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, we may have 20 different candidates, but each will try to channel Ronald Reagan, serving up warmed over 80s nostrums in place of new ideas. The media will no doubt play along and ignore the hole at the center of the party. Witness the indifference to Jeb Bush citing Charles Murray as his poverty guru.

Only last year, former vice presidential hopeful Paul Ryan endured a media firestorm when he cited Murray as the theorist who showed that inner city poverty was a “culture problem” involving “generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” Ryan agreed to meet with critics in the Congressional Black Caucus even as he denied his marks were racially tinged. Bush’s remarks, by contrast, generated almost no media interest.

One reason Republicans can’t leave behind Charles Murray and Ronald Reagan is that this time, it’s the GOP, and not the Democrats, that’s angling for the support of the white working class. And those old-time, racially coded, behavioral approaches to the issue of poverty still have a lot of appeal – nobody seemed to notice that Charles Murray’s last book blamed the troubles of the white working class on their bad behavior. Pretending to be the party of the white working class while their policies favor the wealthy helps Republicans postpone their day of demographic reckoning: when the predicted decline in the number of white voters will doom a 91-percent white party. The GOP is not going to seriously contend for non-white votes any time soon; running up its margins with white working class voters can help in purple states like Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, seems to have concluded that the faction of advisors who recently promised she’d “expand the map” and make Democrats competitive in red states – thanks largely to her purported strength among white voters – were dreaming. That’s what my inner cynic thought, anyway, when she delivered such a strong speech on mass incarceration last week in the wake of the Baltimore unrest. There's more evidence in her bold immigration announcement Tuesday: she'll not merely embrace DACA but expand it to parents of DREAMers.

Facing nominal competition for the Democratic nomination (so far), Clinton nonetheless knows that the party must move beyond its '90s approach to race, crime and poverty for moral and pragmatic reasons – but also political ones. The Jesse Jackson coalition that her husband partly rebuked has grown into the Obama coalition, and Clinton means to consolidate and expand it. We’ll see if she can.

I don’t say that to condemn Clinton as not caring about issues of poverty and racial exclusion, or to cast doubt on the sincerity of her moves on mass incarceration or immigration. She is arguably more committed to these issues than her husband, going back to her work with the Children’s Defense Fund straight out of law school.  Unlike her Republican rivals, she is vying to govern the country that is, not the country that was. Like her husband, she believes she can do well politically by doing good. Only this time it means tackling the big structural issues driving poverty and rising inequality, not the behavior of the poor.

Previously: An in-depth look at the end of (Bill) Clinton liberalism

By Joan Walsh