Bill Clinton has long had the nickname “Big Dog,” which seems appropriate in the wake of his confrontation with a couple of Black Lives Matter protestors in Philadelphia on Thursday. Watching a brief video of the encounter, I had to suppress the urge to yell, “No, Bill Clinton! No! That’s a bad boy! That’s a very bad Bill Clinton!”
The BLM activists had shown up to a rally in an African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia to heckle Clinton over the crime bill he signed while president in 1994. The bill has been blamed for many of the problems facing America’s carceral state today: overcrowded prisons, mass incarceration of a disproportionate number of African-American males, and overly harsh sentencing for relatively minor offenses, among other issues.
Partly because these consequences have become so pervasive and destructive, and partly because the Democratic Party has moved to the left in the last 22 years, their positions on the crime bill have become a litmus test for 2016’s Democratic candidates. Better-informed people than I can argue from now until the trumpets sound about who between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton was “right” and who was “wrong” about the bill in 1994, but there is no doubt that criminal-justice reform is rightfully a major issue in this primary and should remain one in the general campaign.
Which is why it was so sad to watch Bill Clinton’s reaction on Thursday. Talk about someone whose time has passed him by! It was a bit like being a longtime Lakers fan watching Kobe Bryant’s last season. His knees are shot, he spends all his bench time with ice packs and bandages wrapped around him like a partially finished mummy, and yet he’s still going out there and jacking up terrible shots. And fewer and fewer of them are finding the net than earlier in his career.
In the case of Clinton, he seems to have missed the point of Black Lives Matter so badly it was like seeing Kobe airball a layup. One aspect of campaigning where Clinton always excelled, where he was in fact the most talented politician on the national scene for so long, was in his ability to spin a narrative, to frame it and shape it and make his listeners believe in its truth. He was doing this as recently as the 2012 Democratic convention, when he made a meal of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan with the same enthusiasm and thoroughness with which he used to make a meal out of McDonald’s entire menu.
But it makes no difference if his defense of the crime bill and his role in shaping and signing it, was accurate. Or if he was overstating or understating the support the bill had in the African-American community in 1994. Like the original debate itself, the truth is a lot more complicated and could benefit from some context that our current political dialogue, conducted as it is in soundbites and 140 characters at a time on Twitter, does not allow for.
Clinton needed to at least show a little bit of awareness about the contentiousness of this debate in the Democratic Party base. He certainly knows about it. His wife kicked off her campaign last year with a major speech on criminal justice reform and has apologized for her invocation in the '90s of the now-discredited “super-predators” theory (which she seems to have used only once publicly, still one more time than she should have). And her husband went in front of the NAACP a few months back to apologize for the consequences of the crime bill, and promised to work to fix its more egregious effects.
Instead, in Philadelphia he was biting and defensive, which had the Washington Post calling the exchange “2016’s Sister Souljah moment.” Which, holy dear God, if you remember, the original Sister Souljah moment in 1992, is one of the last things about Bill’s presidency you want to bring up in a conversation that has race as such a huge component. It was enough of an insulting and gross pander to white voters 24 years ago, even if you find it understandable in the context of that era’s racial and criminal politics, and this is a different electorate and a very different Democratic primary. Bill Clinton, who used to be so great at reading the moods of the people and telling them exactly what they wanted to hear, should have known better. But, the cheers of the loyalists in the Philadelphia crowd notwithstanding, he apparently didn’t.
I’ll give Clinton half-credit for calming down by Friday and speaking a little more reasonably about the issue. (He only gets half-credit because, in typical Clinton fashion, he would only say that he “almost wanted to apologize,” then seemed to turn it into a plea for Democrats to fight Republicans, not each other.) After Thursday, political writers were saying that since he is so apt to give public performances that lead to headaches for his wife, her campaign should sideline him for the duration. This is probably a wise move, but it only hides the problem. It does not solve it. What happens if Hillary wins the presidency, making Bill the First Gentleman, or whatever we wind up calling him? How much time will a Hillary Clinton White House spend cleaning up because the Big Dog keeps piddling on the carpet?
Here is what Bill Clinton can do, should he find himself once again residing in the White House next January, with an office in the East Wing this time. First Ladies have their causes, for which they agitate and plan and lobby Capitol Hill. Think Michelle Obama and the obesity epidemic, Laura Bush and literacy, or Hillary Clinton and healthcare reform. What Bill, as the nation’s first First Gentleman, can do is make criminal justice reform his pet issue. He can tour the country talking to reform advocates and BLM activists, he can chair task forces to come up with ways of unwinding some of the damage that the ’94 bill did. It’s a huge issue, encompassing elements of our ridiculous drug war and the fight against poverty, among others. The whole project could keep him busy for his wife’s entire term.
Will he do that? Will he embark on a project that would require him to renounce part of his own presidency? That would require him to sit and listen, without getting angry and defensive, to people whose lives have been terribly impacted and even destroyed by the reforms of the 1990s? Can he recommit himself to a role he seemed to be playing a bit during the George W. Bush era – that of a beloved and wise elder statesman?
Promising such a commitment might be a good way for him to help his wife’s campaign now, rather than muzzling himself and going off to brood in Chappaqua. Confront the problem that is Bill Clinton – with all the contradictions and frustrations of his always-enormous personality – and put it to work. It won’t change the minds of the Clintons’ most fervent opponents, who will see it as a cynical ploy for votes that a Hillary Clinton administration will never follow through. But who knows? It would not be the first time politicians did the right thing for wrong or self-interested reasons.