As we were saying. . . .
The Review has been one of the few progressive journals willing to report on how conservative Bill Clinton actually was, the furthest to the right since at least Woodrow Wilson. So we’re glad to see Alternet catch up with the facts.
Prison-loving president. In May, on the heels of the unrest in Baltimore sparked by Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, Clinton apologized for locking too many people up. Thanks, Bill. The 2.4 million people in prison and the 160,000 Americans serving life in prison largely because of his policies might be excused for not accepting Clinton’s apology. Tag-teaming with ex-President Ronald Reagan, Clinton is the president most responsible for the mass incarceration of Americans on an epic scale. The gung-ho crime fighter-in-chief passed the single most damaging law with his omnibus federal crime bill in 1994, which included the infamous “three strikes” law (three felony convictions means a life sentence) and ensured that mandatory minimum sentences imprisoned even low-level, non-violent offenders for a long, long time….
Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 helped set the national mood. Dozens of states followed with their own mandatory minimum laws. While there is some talk today of criminal justice reform on a minor level (like for low-level drug offenses), no one is talking about the all-but-forgotten population doing hard time thanks in large part to Clinton.
Punitive welfare reform. The consequences of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform bill have been devastating for millions of American families. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 took a page directly from Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. In an atmosphere steeped in decades of conservative scaremongering around the specter of sexually reckless “welfare queens,” Clinton’s 1992 campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it” played directly to white voters’ fears of black crime and poverty. Twenty years after scrapping the longstanding Aid to Families with Dependent Children in favor of the right wing’s underfunded and more punitive vision, the number of poor American children has exploded and black welfare recipients are subject to the system’s most stringent rules.
In 2012, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that while “in 1996, for every 100 families with children living in poverty, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families provided cash aid to 68 families,” that number plunged to 27 out of every 100 families living in poverty by 2010. Conservatives trumpet these numbers, often citing the fact that nationally, TANF enrollment fell 58 percent between 1995-2010. But they neglect to mention that the number of poor families with children rose 17 percent in the same period.
Sociologist Joe Soss, who has examined the long-term racial consequences of welfare reform, which allowed states to decide how funds were allotted and eligibility determined, also noted that, “all of the states with more African Americans on the welfare rolls chose tougher rules…Even though the Civil Rights Act prevents the government from creating different programs for black and white recipients, when states choose according to this pattern, it ends up that large numbers of African Americans get concentrated in the states with the toughest rules, and large numbers of white recipients get concentrated in the states with the more lenient rules.”
Wall Street’s Deregulator-in-Chief. As president, Clinton outdid the GOP when it came to unleashing Wall Street’s worst instincts, by supporting and signing into law more financial deregulation legislation than any other president, according to the Columbia Journalism Review.
He didn’t just push the Democrats controlling the House to pass a bill (Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act) that dissolved the Depression-era Glass-Steagall law, which barred investment banks from commercial banking activities. He deregulated the risky derivatives market (Commodity Futures Modernization Act), gutted state regulation of banks (Riegle-Neal) leading to a wave of banking mergers, and reappointed Alan Greenspan as Federal Reserve chair. In recent years, Clinton has ludicrously claimed that the GOP forced him to do this, which led in no small part to the global financial crisis of 2008 and the too-big-to-fail ethos, with the federal government obligated to bail out multinational banks while doing little for individual account holders.
CJR concludes, “The bottom line is: Bill Clinton was responsible for more damaging financial deregulation—and thus, for the  financial crisis—than any other president.”
Gutted manufacturing via trade agreements. Bill Clinton helped gut America’s manufacturing base by promoting and passing the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, in 1993, when Democrats controlled Congress. That especially resonates today, when another Democratic president, Barack Obama, and Republicans in Congress, are allied against labor unions and liberal Democrats to pass its like-minded descendant, the Trans Pacific Partnership. “NAFTA signaled that the Democratic Party—the “progressive” side of the U.S. two-party system—had accepted the reactionary economic ideology of Ronald Reagan,” wrote Jeff Faux, on the Economic Policy Institute Working Economics Blog.
In 1979, then-candidate Reagan proposed a trade pact between the U.S., Canada and Mexico. But the Democrats who controlled the Congress would not approve it until Clinton pushed it in his first year in office. NAFTA has affected U.S. workers in four major ways, EPI said. It caused the permanent loss of 700,000 manufacturing jobs in industrial states such as California, Texas and Michigan. It gave corporate managers an excuse to cut wages and benefits, threatening otherwise to move to Mexico. Selling U.S. farm products in Mexico “dislocated millions of Mexican workers and their families,” which “was a major cause in the dramatic increase in undocumented workers flowing into the U.S. labor market.” And NAFTA became a “template for rules of the emerging global economy, in which the benefits would flow to capital and the costs to labor.”
Expanded the war on drugs. Although Clinton called for treatment instead of prison for drug offenders during his 1992 campaign, once in office he reverted to the same drug war strategies of his Republican predecessors. He rejected the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s recommendation to eliminate the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences. He rejected lifting the federal ban on funding for needle exchange programs. He placed a permanent eligibility ban on food stamps for anyone convicted of a felony drug offense, even marijuana possession. And he prohibited felons from living in public housing.
He also championed the 1994 crime bill, a $30 billion effort that included more mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine, extra funds for states that severely punished convicts, limited judges’ discretion in sentencing, and allocated billions for federal prison construction and expansion. During Clinton’s tenure, federal prison spending jumped $19 billion (171%), while funding for public housing declined by $17 billion (61%). Under Clinton, nearly $1 billion in state spending shifted from education to prisons.
The U.S. prison population doubled from about 600,000 to about 1.2 million during the Clinton years, and the federal prison population swelled even more dramatically, driven almost entirely by drug war prosecutions. Yet a month before leaving office, Clinton said in a Rolling Stone interview that “we really need a re-examination of our entire policy on imprisonment” of drug users and that pot smoking “should be decriminalized.” If only he had acted on those sentiments when it mattered.
Expanded the death penalty. When running for president in 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Clinton allowed his state to execute Ricky Ray Rector, a convicted murderer with severe mental impairments. Despite much criticism, Clinton’s decision not to commute the sentence not only established his tough-on-crime credentials as a national candidate, it also became a precedent to the expansion of the federal death penalty under his White House.
Clinton’s 1994 crime bill expanded the death penalty to 60 additional crimes including three that don’t involve murder: espionage, treason and drug trafficking in large amounts. Throughout his presidency he ignored calls for a national moratorium on federal executions. In April 1996, Clinton followed up and signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act into law. Introduced by Kansas Republican Sen. Bob Dole in response to the Oklahoma City bombings in 1995, it severely restricted the ability of federal judges to grant relief in cases, reduced trials for convicted criminals and sped up the sentencing process.