by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
William Voegeli warns in the pages of Commentary magazine that “Democrats are gearing up to reverse decades of successful policing,” including police efforts championed by the presidential front-runner’s husband during his time in the Oval Office in the 1990s.
One might suppose that Democrats would regard the decline of crime, and of their political vulnerability on the issue, as an unqualified blessing. Not so. The party’s resurgent progressive wing, which has come to detest Clintonian concessions to Reaganism on such issues as financial deregulation and national security, is now equally determined to repudiate the tough-on-crime rhetoric and policies that made it hard to differentiate Democrats from Republicans. Thus, Hillary Clinton took a very different tone from her husband’s in 1992 and 1996 when she made crime the subject of what was widely described as the first major policy address of her 2016 presidential campaign. (She delivered the speech at Columbia University’s David N. Dinkins Leadership & Public Policy Forum.) Neither disparaging guilt over protecting the innocent nor affirming that law and order remained her party’s paramount responsibility, Clinton instead called for creating new approaches that would “end the era of mass incarceration” as well as “working with communities to prevent crime, rather than measuring success just by the number of arrests or convictions.”
The address was “Clinton at her finest,” according to Jonathan Allen of Vox.com, and “represented a full break with her husband’s 1994 crime bill, which pushed for more arrests, more incarcerations, more prison cells, and longer jail sentences.” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie praised the “definitive rebuke to the ‘law and order’ politics used by her husband throughout his career.” By making “police reform” a “Democratic agenda item,” the speech reversed the 1990s dynamic of placating working-class whites. The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart agreed but cut Bill Clinton some slack: Given voters’ attitudes in 1992, “being ‘tough on crime’ was critical” to winning office. Advancing the “mass-incarceration policies that candidate Hillary is now denouncing” was one of political life’s “brutal, tragic tradeoffs,” wrote Beinart, but one without which she wouldn’t have become first lady then, or be in the running for the presidency now.
And yet there is a fundamental disconnect when it comes to Hillary Clinton’s speech and the praise it generated. Over the past two decades, in the eyes of progressives, America has done little to alleviate the deprivation, misery, and social injustice that supposedly accounted for the rise in crime. They continue to believe that the “root cause” of crime is poverty and privation. And yet by their own description, America hasn’t addressed root causes at all. So how on earth could the crime drop have taken place? Worse still, the reduction in crime has been accompanied by exactly the stern measures progressives warned would be futile and cruelly punitive: namely, the renewed determination to make sure that “criminals are caught, the guilty are convicted, and the convicted serve their time,” as the 1996 Democratic platform stated.