As the 2016 Presidential campaign revs up, we’re seeing a political version of guilt by association as Hillary Clinton tries to position herself in relation to the cornerstones of her husband’s legislative agenda: the Violent Crime and Enforcement Act (VCEA, 1994), the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (PRWOA, 1996), and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA, 1994). Liberals and progressives widely recognize that these policies had an immediate and devastating impact on people of color, the white working class, and organized labor. They also had continuing influence, at once contributing to and mirroring current issues and debates involving poverty, incarceration, and trade agreements.
A brief historical summary might be helpful. The VCEA, based on the idea that increased incarceration would lower the crime rate, was part of President Clinton’s attempt to capture the “get tough on crime” zeitgeist. As criminologist Jeremy Travis suggested, the federal government promised increased funding to states that increased punishment for drug offenses, and 28 states and the District of Columbia “followed the money and enacted stricter sentencing laws for violent offenses.” As a result, the number of prisons and the rate of incarceration of the poor, blacks, and Latinos have increased. That may have helped the growing prison industry, but later studies show there was little correspondence between incarcerations and lower crime rates.
The PRWOA was central to President Clinton’s and the Republicans’ goals of trimming the federal deficit but also weaning the poor off of government assistance by cutting welfare benefits for the unemployed. The legislation reduced the amount of time that individuals and families could receive benefits and established work requirements. It also reduced federal funding and required states to decrease welfare caseloads and closely monitor the work activities of welfare recipients. Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program was replaced with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which included requirements for job training, GED programs, and subsidized employment opportunities. While the new policy may have decreased the cost of government assistance, it did not reduce poverty. In fact, the poverty rate has grown.
NAFTA aimed to eliminate tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers, protect intellectual property, and established a dispute resolution procedure between Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Proponents argued that these changes would reduce poverty and immigration. NAFTA did contribute to increasing trade, which has roughly tripled in the last 20 years, but the trade gap also widened to $181 billion with Mexico and Canada as over 1 million manufacturing jobs moved largely to the Mexican border areas. NAFTA contributed to deindustrialization and the declining standard of living of workers and their families. It was especially hard on residents in rustbelt states, including Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. It also undermined small-scale agriculture in Mexico and exacerbated the current immigration crisis. As former President Clinton acknowledged during Congressional testimony in 2010, his trade policy “has not worked” to alleviate poverty. He called the policy “a mistake.” On NAFTA’s 20th anniversary, even Forbes was forced to grudgingly admit that, at best, “the trade deal was a mixed bag, a generally positive yet disappointing economic experiment.”
Twenty years later, Hillary Clinton faces the prospect of running against President Clinton’s political legacy. At the same time, the same legislative concerns that gave rise to his legacy are in play again – trade, poverty, and criminalization. Like anyone tainted with guilt by association, Hillary is in the tricky position of distancing herself from a family member without being either disloyal or disingenuous.
In a recent speech, she called for criminal justice reform, including changes in sentencing and social services, increased use of body cameras for police accountability and transparency, and addressing the fundamental unfairness and injustice of the “war on drugs” for African-Americans. Despite all hoopla about speech, it largely repeated the current mainstream debate about the flaws in the criminal justice system. Nor did Hillary acknowledge that the VCEA had contributed to the problem. Republican Rand Paul noted the contradiction, saying her ideas would “undo some of Bill Clinton’s work,” which she had supported. He also noted “the number of prisoners under federal jurisdiction doubled” during the Clinton years.
In recent years, we’ve heard increasing concerns about increased levels unemployment, wage stagnation, and poverty. While Hillary has expressed a clear interest in wealth and wage inequality, she has not articulated a legislative agenda to address it, not has she suggested increasing social spending or rolling back any of the cuts from PROWA.
The same is true of trade. The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) provides an excellent opportunity to oppose free trade in favor of fair trade. But this would require political tacking given her past support for NAFTA and other trade agreements. As Robert Kuttner has suggested, though, Senators Sherrod Brown, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and even Charles Schumer have opposed the TPP, providing Hillary with plenty of political cover, and she could increase her populist appeal by opposing it.
Yet Hillary might have an even more difficult hurdle. Even if she repudiates her husband’s political legacy and advances a progressive agenda, will Americans believe her? A recent Quinnipiac University survey of registered voters shows that while most think she had strong leadership qualities (62%), 54% do not view Hillary Clinton as honest or trustworthy. The question of character will be especially important to the working class and African Americans who haven’t forgotten how they were deceived by “slick Willy.”
Former Co-Director, Center for Working-Class Studies