The Messy, Very Human Politics of Bill Clinton’s Crime Bill

The activists who denounce the bill now have much in common with the activists who supported it in 1994.

President Bill Clinton shakes hands with Ray Skillern, a 12-year veteran of the Canton, Ohio, police force in February 1994.
This presidential campaign is as much a repudiation of Bill Clinton’s administration as it is a look to the future. Above, Clinton shakes hands with an Ohio police officer in 1994.

Jeff Haynes/Getty Images

Twenty-two years ago, President Bill Clinton shepherded a comprehensive crime bill through Congress in the midst—though we would later learn it was the tail end—of a yearslong violent crime wave that had claimed close to 25,000 lives the previous year. Many, if not most, of the lost were young and black, victims of drug violence or turf wars or petty theft or just innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire of criminal conflict in inner-city neighborhoods around the country.

Torn apart by violence, these black communities—where churches and activists struggled to keep young people safe and where parents lived in terror of losing everything they had worked for—demanded action. And Clinton came to them, offering “tough” policies that might not bring jobs or repair their neighborhoods, but would keep dangerous people off the streets and offer a measure of safety to ordinary people. Backed by many of the most mainstream black lawmakers and community leaders, Clinton took their fears seriously, even as his proposed remedy divided these communities along class and ideological lines. But at a time when death claimed or threatened a whole generation of young people, it was something.

Last week, while campaigning for his wife in Philadelphia before a predominantly black audience of several hundred people, he tried to defend that something against two black protesters. The protesters held signs. “Clinton crime bill destroyed our communities,” read one. “Black people are not super predators,” said another. Clinton was incensed.

“Because of that bill,” he said, “we had a 25-year low in crime, a 33-year low in the murder rate. … Because of that and the background check law we had a 46-year low in the deaths of people by gun violence—and who do you think those lives were? That mattered? Whose lives were saved, that mattered?”

Clinton, by this point visibly frustrated, wouldn’t let up. “This is what’s the matter,” he said, pointing at the signs. “I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-olds hopped up on crack and sent them out onto the street to murder other African-American children. Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She didn’t! … You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter! Tell the truth! You are defending the people who caused young people to go out and take guns.

“I talked to a lot of African-American groups. They thought black lives mattered,” his voice rising as he took and repurposed the chant against him. “They said, ‘Take this bill, because our kids are being shot in the streets by gangs. We have 13-year-old kids planning their own funerals.’ ” He pointed to one of the protesters. “She doesn’t want to hear about that.”

Here, it’s hard not to psychoanalyze Clinton. Between Bernie’s challenge from the left and Hillary’s decision to move in kind, this presidential campaign is as much a repudiation of his administration as it is a look to the future—Bill Clinton is confronting that as much as anything. But in that confrontation, we vividly see the rapid shift in the politics of crime that has turned his rhetoric—which was once routine for all Democrats—into something that feels out of touch, if not offensive. It’s a shift that obscures the degree to which black communities were active participants in the crime debate, both as critics and as supporters. Indeed, Clinton and the protesters are talking past each other and embodying the change in our politics, with the former blind to the new landscape and the latter profoundly informed by it.

It’s worth saying, first, that Bill’s defense of Hillary’s “superpredator” comments doesn’t hold up. When Hillary Clinton spoke about “superpredators”—referencing a now-debunked theory about crime that had gained currency in both academia and the media—she was talking about the children themselves, supposedly remorseless killers who couldn’t be redeemed. They needed to be “brought to heel.” For today’s activists, this language—which played to white fears of monstrous black youth—is emblematic of a Democratic Party and a political culture that locked away an entire generation of young black men. And while an increasingly brown and black Democratic Party has abandoned that language, it lives on in right-wing rhetoric like the kind that surfaced after the killing of Trayvon Martin.

The Clintons recognize the ground has shifted. Bill has acknowledged the failures of the crime bill, and Hillary Clinton has both renounced her “superpredator” comments and made criminal justice reform a central part of her campaign, lending credence to the idea that Bill’s response was more an emotional outburst than a calculated decision.

Where Bill Clinton was correct (if self-serving) was in the reality of black political support for the bill. Michael Fortner, a professor of urban studies at the City University of New York, makes this point in a February interview with my colleague Leon Neyfakh:

[T]here was grassroots mobilization of the community, particularly by black pastors. There was a group of influential black pastors who signed a letter encouraging the Congressional Black Caucus to support the bill. And then later, on top of that, black elected officials, who portrayed themselves at various points as uncomfortable with some of these laws, went along anyway because of pressure coming from their communities, and because they also realized the problem was so bad.

Supporters saw the bill as a flawed but necessary tool in the fight to save their neighborhoods from drugs and violent crime, which, at that point, had claimed thousands of lives, largely young people. Critics in those same communities saw policies that could lead to greater incarceration and worse outcomes for black communities. Neither group, it turns out, was entirely correct. While the crime bill codified a whole suite of draconian policies into a new national status quo, it wasn’t the prime driver of mass incarceration; states and localities, much more than the federal government, drove the explosion in America’s prison population. (Today, those same states and localities are the focal point for efforts to shrink the prison population.) And while there’s evidence that ties some crime-bill provisions to lower crime—like funds to hire more police officers—in the broad story, the federal government is a relatively minor actor in a complex and overdetermined phenomenon. To that point, researchers still don’t know what exactly is responsible for the sustained drop in violent crime since the 1990s.

All of that is to say that in the 1994 crime bill we have a complicated story of fear, racism, good intentions, and cynical political maneuvering. Did centrist Democrats like Clinton back the bill as part of an effort to win working-class whites from Republicans? Yes. Did many black lawmakers vote for it despite serious reservations, pushed by frightened constituents, concerned by the prospect of a worse bill, ideologically hemmed in by national figures in both parties who wanted punishment, not rehabilitation? Absolutely. Their communities faced the brunt of the crime epidemic, and for them it was either something—a flawed bill—or nothing. It helped that their initial hesitation—and at a point, their outright opposition—brought concessions. The $30 billion omnibus proposal contained nearly $7 billion in programs for preventing crime, from drug courts to grants for low-income communities.

At the same time, neither Bill Clinton nor the Democratic Party he led is blameless or exonerated for the status quo. No, the crime bill isn’t responsible for the rise of mass incarceration. But Clinton is responsible for pushing more humane policies out of the mainstream, with rhetoric that reflected the aggressive posture of local elites and enhanced it with presidential stature. No one forced Bill Clinton to fly back to Arkansas during the 1992 campaign to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector to avoid looking “soft on crime.” No one forced other Democrats, like Joe Biden, to tout the death penalty offenses he had written into the crime bill as part of a political drive to “win” crime for his party.

Democrats hungrily followed a conservative consensus on crime, government, and punishment, rejecting less punitive options in favor of federalizing draconian state and local policies that drove the growth in incarceration, all in an (ultimately failed) effort to bring suburban white voters back into the Democratic Party. That these didn’t cause the problem doesn’t mean they weren’t influential. Ordinary Americans demanded action on crime; Democrats helped ensure any action would happen within the narrow ideological band of the carceral state.

But crime was a serious and urgent problem. And lawmakers of all stripes faced demands to do something. Smart, thoughtful people backed the crime bill in an honest effort to do good. (Bernie Sanders, for instance, spoke out against the bill … and then cast his vote for it, later calling for tougher penalties for drug possession). And while Clinton was playing the issue for political gain, he also believed the law was ultimately there to protect Americans from the real and destabilizing threat of violent crime. If he can’t quite keep himself from a full-throated defense of the crime bill, it’s likely because he still sees it as an important measure that kept ordinary, working people safe, regardless of the reality.

We can’t lose sight of the fact that the crime bill did real damage to countless communities, harming people it was supposed to help. But we also can’t turn this into a simple morality play of good guys and bad ones. With the crime bill, there is a real gap between good intentions and actual consequences that is worth considering, not as an excuse or a defense, but as a lesson. A reminder that politics is full of the unintended, and that as a profoundly human endeavor, it’s almost never a story of perfect heroes and simple villains.

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