When did he suddenly cease to be a gifted politician?
ere’s a question for the poli-sci folks here in the shebeen: When did Bill Clinton become such a fcking political maladroit?
His godawful answers to the folks from the Black Lives Matter movement who showed up to heckle him—and whose points, however raucously made, were damn good ones—turned an uncomfortable moment into (at least) a two-day story. It also opened wide the question of how much damage he had to do in order to hold off the worst impulses of his political opposition in the 1990s. Or, more simply, how sharp were the edges of that triangle, and who got cut the deepest?
There always have been tales from the inside about his quick trigger, which certainly was on display Thursday when the BLM folks came to call.
“I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African-American children,” he said, shaking his finger at a heckler as Clinton supporters cheered, according to video of the event. “Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She [Hillary Clinton] didn’t…You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter,” he told a protester. “Tell the truth.”
First of all, “hopped up on crack”? Who are you? Jack Webb? Second, many of the people in BLM weren’t even born when Clinton signed the 1994 crime bill—an act, we should note, for which he has already apologized—but they grew up watching their brothers and uncles and parents get hauled off for preposterously long sentences. The movement arose because of the unwarranted killing of black people by law enforcement, and by crackpot vigilantes like George Zimmerman, not because the BLM members felt tender toward drug kingpins. And, not for nothing, but even drug kingpins deserve fair trials and equitable sentences under the law.
(Also, Clinton is going to have to fight for space on this particular fainting couch with the newly resurrected Andrew Sullivan, who went on Chris Matthews show Wednesday night and decided that Ta-Nehisi Coates was a Marxist, or some such crapola. Welcome back, Andrew.)
There’s no question that the 1994 law exploded the country’s prison population. (That a great deal of that explosion occurred at the state level is beside the point. A Democratic president helped point the way—again, as Clinton already has acknowledged.) There’s no question that it helped establish the ludicrous disparity in sentences for crack cocaine as opposed to the powdered variety, a disparity that fell most heavily on African-American defendants. A lot of the law enforcement abuses—militarized policing, no-knock warrants, asset forfeiture—that so many people deplore today had their roots in the 1984 Omnibus Crime Bill signed by Ronald Reagan. Those trends accelerated behind Clinton’s bill a decade later. And if you believe, as I do, that the “war” on drugs was the template for the subsequent abuses of the “war” on terror, then Bill Clinton has a few things for which he should be called to account, and yelling “Soft on murder!” from a public platform is no way to do that.
Bill Clinton remains one of the most gifted politicians of my lifetime. And it is true that he did a great job holding back the worst excesses of Gingrichism during his term of office—including that exercise in Gingrichism that sought to deprive him of said office. But this is the second election in a row in which he is turning out to be one of his wife’s clumsiest surrogates. I would make the modest suggestion to him that This Is Not About You. If you want to defend your record, write another massively unreadable book. If you want someone to defend your record ably, ask your wife. She seems to know how to do it best.