What the Clintons Mean to Me

Maybe this is a generational thing, but this is what the Clintons will always mean to me: Sister Souljah, Ricky Ray Rector, welfare reform, and the crime bill. And beyond—really, behind—all that, the desperate affirmation to win over white voters by declaring: We are not the Party of Jesse Jackson, We are not the Rainbow Coalition.

People don’t seem to remember just how much the Clintons’ national ascendancy was premised upon the repudiation of black voters and black interests—a move that was both inspired and applauded by a small but influential group of Beltway journalists and party strategists, who believed this was the only path to taking back the White House from the Republicans—but for me, it’s vivid as yesterday. Maybe it’s because it happened at a formative period of my life, during my first years in graduate school. My roommate and closest friend throughout those years was Paul Frymer, who’s now a professor of politics at Princeton University. Paul’s dissertation—which he began to write in the apartment we shared on Canner Street in New Haven, and which formed the basis for the now classic Uneasy Alliances—was born in part out of the tremendous frustration and anger many of us felt about the wrenching transformation the Clintons imposed upon the Democratic Party.

I was recently re-reading some of Paul’s book, and it brought that whole sordid moment back in painful detail. Like the fact, according to an article by Andrew Hacker, which Paul cites, that “for the first time in almost half a century, the party’s [1992] platform made no mention of redressing racial injustice.” (I re-read the platform: it does mention affirmative action and civil rights in passing, but it’s cursory.) Or the fact that in their 1992 book, Putting People First, Bill Clinton and Al Gore only mentioned race once. And that was to oppose the idea of racial quotas. Or the fact that their chapter on civil rights was mostly about people with disabilities.

What’s more, white people got the message: according to polls, white voters were more familiar with Clinton’s attack on Sister Souljah than they were with his economic plan. So did black people: though they voted for Clinton, their share of the total voter turnout fell by 20% from 1988, when they cast their ballots for Michael Dukakis (and accounted for 20% of the vote for him and 10% of total turnout), and 1992, when they cast their ballots for Clinton (and accounted for 15% of the vote for him and 8% of total turnout).

Stanley Greenberg, Clinton’s pollster, celebrated all these changes in an influential book, arguing that this recalibrated attention to black voters “allowed for a Democratic Party that could once again represent people in the broadest sense.” It doesn’t take a close reader to know what that “people in the broadest sense” looked like.

This is what the Clintons were to millions of voters. This is what they will always be to me.

Update (10 pm)

Tim Barker just reminded me on Twitter, that the Jesse Jackson bogeyman was part of the Clintons’ playbook as late as 2008. A fact I should have remembered, since I just mentioned it the other day!


  1. Brad DeLong January 25, 2016 at 10:37 pm | #

    So you feel dissed because Bill Clinton sought political advantage by saying: “Sister Souljah said something stupid”, when Sister Soujah did in fact say something stupid? Is that your point here?


    Brad DeLong

    • Corey Robin January 25, 2016 at 10:48 pm | #

      Oh, Brad.

    • Debra Cooper January 26, 2016 at 1:22 am | #

      So this is what Sistah Souljah said

      In 1992, hip-hop artist and political activist Sister Souljah was asked to weigh in on the Los Angles riots that erupted after four police officers were acquitted of using excessive force for the savage, videotaped beating of Rodney King. During an interview with the Washington Post published shortly after the six days of violence and looting, Sister Souljah commented: “if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” That answer was in response to Post reporter David Mills’ questioning whether violence in L.A. was a “wise, reasoned action.” (You can read her full answer to that question here.)

      On its face it’s appalling, of course.

      Though one could also see as both conceptual art and arguement by absurdist reduction. It was meant to make a point. Well at least I hope it was.

    • Christopher Fay January 26, 2016 at 3:33 am | #

      There’s the hypocritical aspect of Hillary basing her wish to win the primaries by counting on black voters but they stepped on black voters heads to get ahead in 1992. There’s also the fact that the neolib theory has done nothing for working class Americans while Bernie is speaking to that.

  2. Cullen N January 25, 2016 at 10:56 pm | #

    Brad, your response seems like a MAJOR missing of the point.
    The “Sister Souljah moment” occurred during a politically formative time for me as well (late high school) and it is similarly etched in my brain as a morally cowardly, opportunistic move to assuage White Fear.
    Keep in mind that Souljah’s comments, as clumsy as you may find them, were a description of many Black people’s genuine frustrations following the Rodney King incident and the acquittal of the police officers. It is absolutely reflective of the Clintonian character that he seized on this moment not to criticize the nature of police or the prevalence of anti-Black discrimination and violence, but to scold a pretty minor public entertainment figure.
    It was more or less a racialized variation on “kicking the hippie,” and I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that kind of thing isn’t going to be in the 2016 playbook (probably minus the racial aspect this time, because demographics).

    • Debra Cooper January 26, 2016 at 1:27 am | #

      She’s not going to be kicking any hippies.

      Did you ever see what she wore back when hippies were around?
      She dressed like a hippie. And thought like a hippie. And had values like a hippie.
      That who she was back during HER formative years.

      Please don’t tell me she was a Goldwater Republican. Elizabeth Warren voted for Republicans until the new millennium. I am sure you’re not holding it against Warren

      And second the Democrats need every hippie they can get and she’s smart enough to know that.

      • Cullen N January 26, 2016 at 11:20 am | #

        “Kicking the hippie” is a political trope, meaning aggressively distancing yourself from the “embarrassing” elements of your constituency in order to demonstrate your “seriousness” as a politician and place on the mainstream political stage. This tactic is perhaps especially used by those with a “questionable past” so they can demonstrate “how much they’ve grown.”
        The fact that this tool *might not* be strategic in this given cycle (we’ll see) doesn’t negate the reality that the Clintons have used it in the past. Their foul opportunism is the consistent trait here.

      • Donna Charis January 26, 2016 at 6:07 pm | #

        Hillary wasn’t just a “Godlwater Trpublican”, she was in fact a “Goldwater Girl”, those strange “hippie” fringed folks who sought out liberal thinking peiple and delighted in debating the rationale and right thinking of policies and laws which aided and protected “Black” lives in the U.S.

  3. Joanna Bujes January 26, 2016 at 12:10 am | #

    And then there was the repeal of Glass Steagle.

  4. Roqeuntin January 26, 2016 at 12:53 am | #

    I was too young. I honestly had never even heard of Sister Souljah until people started talking about it again recently (or Ricky Ray Rector, never heard that name before today). I have precisely one memory of Reagan. Hell, it wasn’t even Reagan personally. It was Nancy interrupting my Saturday Morning Catoons with dancing teenagers to tell me to just say no to drugs. Look at how well that worked.

    I kind of remember Clinton winning the first time. I was 9 years old and I remember being supportive of Bush Sr., still blissfully unaware of what I was being spoon fed. That would all come later. By ’96 I was approaching the teenage years and really didn’t care. I do remember thinking that the GOP looked like a pack of pious clowns during the Lewinsky scandal, as if a blowjob was worth all that time and effort. I remember my dad being angry about it, or maybe he was feigning outrage because he was told to. He went through this strange conservative phase in my teen years that was all about making more money, getting old, getting more involved in church.

    My best friend’s dad, who lived in St. Louis (parents were divorced) got into evangelical Christianity and started stockpiling food and water for Y2K or whatever bizarre apocalypse he thought it was. It was the era of Left Behind books, ordinary madness and paranoia.

    No wonder we turned to weed.

  5. ronp January 26, 2016 at 1:00 am | #

    Yes, Bill was a triangulating idiot, and I never thought much about how he was in pocket of the shrinking southern racist Democrats — you do a great job of pointing that our. It was a strange time indeed (sad too), but…Hillary will be different and the Republicans are so horrible. I am fine with Bernie too, but I have a wife and daughter who need to see a woman president ASAP, and so would I.

    DW-Nominate puts Bernie as .523 and Hillary at .391 — http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/3/31/1374629/-Hillary-Clinton-Was-the-11th-Most-Liberal-Member-of-the-Senate that is not that far apart really.

    • I'm with stupid January 26, 2016 at 9:58 am | #

      “I have a wife and daughter who need to see a woman president ASAP”

      This is appalling. Sarah Palin could have become president if McCain had died in office. Would that have fulfilled their ‘need’?

      • J January 26, 2016 at 11:57 am | #

        Believing that it’s important for a woman to be president and believing Sarah Palin shouldn’t be allowed within 100 miles of the White House are not mutually incompatible positions. To suggest that they are is disingenuous.

        • juliana January 26, 2016 at 2:36 pm | #

          Believing that a “token” woman, more a prop than a true symbol of leadership, is something that is needed to inspire women, if it is not being disingenuous, is buying into the establishment propaganda and spreading it unthinkingly.

  6. Debra Cooper January 26, 2016 at 1:15 am | #

    Hillary Clinton is one person. Bill Clinton is another person. They are separate people with separate ideas and principles.

    She was always more progressive than he was. I know I heard her say things in real time which made that clear. In 1996 when the so called welfare “reform” bill passed it was clear from contemporaneous comments I heard her make that she was not not in favor of that bill. One could seeassault on welfare reform as a bill targeting racial minorities, esp. Black women.

    It is unfair, unjust and sadly sexist to assume that the wife mimics every thought, idea and policy her husband supported.

    • Corey Robin January 26, 2016 at 1:43 am | #

      Debra Cooper: You’ve got your facts wrong. As Senator, Hillary Clinton not only supported reauthorization of the welfare reform act; she also pushed for higher work requirements (from 30 hours a week to 40 hours a week), a move that was opposed by liberals in Congress and supported by the Bush Administration. A coalition of women of color in New York — including former welfare recipients — lobbied hard to get her to budge on the reauthorization but she refused. Please don’t lob accusations of sexism before checking out the historical record first.

    • Cullen N January 26, 2016 at 11:27 am | #

      Hillary tried to stand in the way of one of Bill’s few commendable acts (granting clemency to Puerto Rican political prisoners) in an effort to shore up law enforcement support for her Senatorial bid. Well, she stood in the way after she initially supported it – demonstrating that whatever “more progressive” traits she may possess, Hillary is more than willing to set them aside in the name of political ambition.

      (see: http://www.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/stories/1999/09/05/senate.2000/hillary.puerto.rico/ )

    • J January 26, 2016 at 12:00 pm | #

      So much criticism of Hillary is laden with comments about what Bill did, as if feminism never happened and husband and wife were the same legal entity. I’m not saying Secretary Clinton doesn’t have bad things in her closet to answer for. But when criticism of her talks about something Bill Clinton did, I have a hard time not dismissing everything that’s said as sexism.

      • Chris Lowe January 26, 2016 at 8:36 pm | #

        Hillary Clinton has built her strategy for getting to the center and the top of U.S. politics on keeping closely associated with Bill Clinton. Like Bill’s strategy of getting to the top in a marginal state (Arkansas) and launching from there into the center, it has worked, so can’t be criticized on that basis. But it is what it is. She has not built a political career independent of Bill. She did not take the opportunity to repudiate him and separate from him in the face of his appalling personal abuse of their marriage, of her trust in him if she had any left, and of feminist principles.

        I’m not saying she should have, just that it was a strategic choice to advance her own political career. It is understandable in terms of the overall sexism of U.S. politics.

        But, live by the couple-based strategy, die by the couple-based strategy.

        • Debra Cooper January 26, 2016 at 10:39 pm | #

          She has most certainly created a politcal career that is not built about him.

          By the way people who knew her from her time at Yale and at the Nixon impeachment committee, thought she would have had a political future WITHOUT HIM

          She was somebody without him. She would have been somebody without him.

          Maybe you can’t see them as separate people, but that’s you not her. .

          She can agree with him and she can disagree with him. I know for a fact that back when they passed that she was not in favor of the welfare bill or NAFTA.

          Financial issues were something I didn’t hear her speak about so I have nothing to offer.

  7. Debra Cooper January 26, 2016 at 2:20 am | #

    Actually read what I wrote. It was about 1996 not nearly 10 years later.

    I was the head of the Women’s Desk in the NY State Clinton Gore campaign. About a week or so after the bill passed I heard her speak at a small event in which her comments made it clear that when the bill was being discussed at the WH, she was not in favor of it. Actually neither was George Stephenopulos. His negative feelings were reported later because he had by then left the WH and left politics. She was the man’s wife and so she kept those feelings to herself…mostly. But people who knew her knew her real feelings…

    Welfare reform – which i think was awful policy and I think has had an real impact on the increasing mortality rate among middle class white people, women having an even higher mortality rate than men should notmhave been signed into law…( though it is unclear just hiw much worse the billwould have been if Bill hadn’t at least tried to negotiate to make it better and it was going to lass amybe even against his veto) ..long aside…back to the point

    But it was passed during a period of rising economic circumstances. Women could get jobs. So to many, even those initially against the bill, it looked like a success.

    But as the economy worsened it has become clearer and clearer it was not a success. Worse than not a success.

    Given what youmhave written, she was wrong when she was Senator. In her first term there were a bunch of, what shall I call them, moves to the so called center for many, many reasons that I think were bad policy. I think she might now see it differently. Because I am talking about one’s initial instincts…i think instincts matter.

    There is a lot more to trust there than you are giving her credence for.

    a simple concept. She is a good person who genuinely cares about people. Really she does.

    • robertalexanderbruens January 28, 2016 at 9:55 pm | #

      “Too many of those on welfare had known nothing but dependency all their lives, and many would have found it difficult to make the transition to work on their own…Since we first asked mothers to move from welfare to work, millions of families have made the transition from dependency to dignity.…We wanted to do it in a way that kept faith with our goals: End welfare as we know it, substitute dignity for dependence, but make work pay.…Now that we’ve said these people are no longer deadbeats—they’re actually out there being productive—how do we keep them there?” – First Lady Hillary Clinton, 1999

  8. Debra Cooper January 26, 2016 at 2:21 am | #

    Not middle class white people, middle aged white people

    Case Deaton study

  9. Debra Cooper January 26, 2016 at 2:38 am | #

    Go back to the 3 1980’s crime bills….all written by Joe Biden. Those bills created mandatory minimum sentences, taking discretion away from judges, disparate sentences for cocaine vs crack cocaine which targeted Black Americans and yes asset seizure without charging anyone with a crime

    The worst provisions which harmed Black Americans were in those bills.

    Bill and Hillary Clinton were in Arkansas then.

    The 1994 bill was also written by Joe Biden….and yes signed by Bill Clinton but he was not part of its creation. There were a couple of ok provisions, David Dinkins praised the money to hire more police, NYers liked that part. Joe put the VVAW into the bill, his atonement for his treatment of Anita Hill.

    I am not saying Bill Clinton had tons of problems with the bill…honestly I don’t know.

    And she has admitted they were harmful and wrong, but it wasn’t the 1994 crime bill alone that caused the harm.

  10. wetcasements January 26, 2016 at 3:22 am | #

    And yet, the perfect remains the enemy of the good. Just ask potential future Supreme Court justice Ted Cruz.

  11. David Alvarez January 26, 2016 at 9:18 am | #

    as a relatively recent immigrant to the states at the time of bill clinton’s ascendancy, i was struck by how little his administration’s incursions into foreign countries–e.g., iraq, sudan, colombia–seemed to matter in domestic discussions of his reign. fly-over zones, sanctions, bombs, bolstering of paramilitaries, this is what the clintons were to millions of (mostly brown and black) people around the world.

  12. Vicki Cheikes January 26, 2016 at 10:50 am | #

    Like it or not, African Americans are about 12% of the US population and while the South may be the most racist part of the US, it is hardly alone. Via the media, one is fed a constant diet of crime and dsyfunction, seemingly all or the vast majority by “black” folks. I am a life long liberal (and white, and female in my 60’s) and yet when I see some young woman, usually black, with several children, none of which she can afford to take care of, it sets my teeth on edge. I am totally for free contraception and free abortion…and I know that there are plenty of white young women having children they can’t afford either…but my point is that is what people are fed. If the Dems (every last one of them) ever try to openly fight for black folks…they will lose elections in droves. This is horrible and embarrassing, but true. Bernie Sanders, the candidate most in favor of those programs that would benefit the middle class and the poor in the US, without regard to color, is being hammered by groups like “Black Lives Matter” — but if Mr. Sanders were ever to go off his general economic message to a focus on black folks…he will be out of this race in a heart beat. The US is essentially racist…it is what it is.

    • Roquentin January 26, 2016 at 12:07 pm | #

      I found that recent essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates a little troubling. While the economic programs Sanders touts are not reparations per se, they will disproportionately benefit African Americans due to their economic circumstances, as sort of a stealth reparations (this is a good thing). This way they get the money and since it’s not called that, it doesn’t press the rage button in white America. To call it “a rising tide lifts all ships” was totally disingenuous. Perhaps getting a lump cash sum is a pride thing, and I can empathize with that logic to a degree. Still, the list of ethnic groups in the US which have received a shitty deal is long. Nothing on par with slavery (well, except perhaps for the eradication of Native American populations), but black people absolutely aren’t the only ones who were exploited.

  13. Thomas L. Dumm January 31, 2016 at 8:31 am | #

    I used to refer to Bill Clinton as “our Nixon.” He was a master politician, but he never had a focus on anything more than achieving and keeping power. The problem with him, and with Hillary — see, for instance, Elizabeth Warren’s description of her total shift on a regressive bankruptcy law when she became NY senator, after having opposed it when First Lady (another bill pushed by Joe Biden, by the way) — is not that they are racist per se. It is that they do the calculation of what works best for them regardless of whether it is right or wrong.

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