The re-evaluation of Bill Clinton and the 1994 crime bill

Thomas Frank takes apart recent efforts in the mainstream media to minimize Bill Clinton’s culpability in the massive incarceration of young black men. Recent news reports have emphasized that incarceration rates were rising well before the Clinton years. But Frank says that this has always been well known to anyone who has looked at the ‘War on Crime’ and so it is hardly news worthy now. But he says that the fact that it is being reported as news sheds an interesting light on its purpose.

Why report a historical fact that everyone already knows? The answer is because former president Bill Clinton, the man who called for and signed the 1994 crime bill, is also the husband of the current frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Democratic voters are having trouble squaring his draconian crime bill with his wife’s liberal image.

That might be the reason so many of these stories seem to unfold with the same goal in mind: to minimize Clinton’s moral culpability for what went on back in the 1990s. Mass incarceration was already happening, these stories agree. And besides, not everything in the crime bill was bad. As for its lamentable effects, well, they weren’t intentional. What’s more, Bill Clinton has apologized for it. He’s sorry for all those thousands of people who have had decades of their lives ruined by zealous prosecutors and local politicians using the tools Clinton accidentally gave them. He sure didn’t mean for that to happen.

All of a sudden, the punitive frenzies of the 1980s and 1990s seem like something from a cruel foreign country. All of a sudden, Bill Clinton looks like a monster rather than a hero, and he now finds himself dogged by protesters as he campaigns for his wife, Hillary. And so the media has stepped up to do what it always does: reassure Americans that the nightmare isn’t real, that this honorable man did the best he could as president.

I think today (as I thought at the time) that there is indeed something worth criticizing when a Democratic president signs on to a national frenzy for punishment and endorses things like “three strikes”, “mandatory minimums”, and “truth in sentencing”, the latter being a cute euphemism for “no more parole”. The reason the 1994 crime bill upsets people is not because they stupidly believe Bill Clinton invented these things; it is because they know he encouraged them. Because the Democrats’ capitulation to the rightwing incarceration agenda was a turning point in its own right. [My italics-MS]

Another interesting fact. Two weeks after Clinton signed the big crime bill in September 1994, he enacted the Riegle-Neal interstate banking bill, the first in a series of moves deregulating the financial industry. The juxtaposition between the two is kind of shocking, when you think about it: low-level drug users felt the full weight of state power at the same moment that bankers saw the shackles that bound them removed. The newspaper headline announcing the discovery of this amazing historical finding will have to come from my imagination – Back-to-Back 1994 Laws Freed Bankers And Imprisoned Poor, perhaps – but the historical pattern is worth noting nevertheless, since it persisted all throughout Clinton’s administration.

For one class of Americans, Clinton brought emancipation, a prayed-for deliverance from out of Glass–Steagall’s house of bondage. For another class of Americans, Clinton brought discipline: long prison stretches for drug users; perpetual insecurity for welfare mothers; and intimidation for blue-collar workers whose bosses Clinton thoughtfully armed with the North American Free Trade Agreement. As I have written elsewhere, some got the carrot, others got the stick.

But what is most shocking in our current journo-historical understanding of the Clinton years is the idea that the mass imprisonment of people of color was an “unintended consequence” of the 1994 crime bill, to quote the New York Daily News’s paraphrase of Hillary Clinton. This is flatly, glaringly false, as the final, ugly chapter of the crime bill story confirms.

Frank goes onto describe the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity for crack and powdered cocaine that put large amounts of black people in jail and few white people. A Sentencing Commission recommended ending that disparity but the Republican dominated Congress passed a bill overturning the recommendations of the Sentencing Commission. Bernie Sanders voted against that move and president Clinton gave a speech in 1995 deploring the difference in incarceration rates and that ‘blacks are right to think something is terribly wrong.” And yet:

Two weeks after that speech, however, Clinton blandly affixed his signature to the bill retaining the 100-to-1 sentencing disparity, a disparity that had brought about the lopsided incarceration of black people. Clinton could have vetoed it, but he didn’t. He signed it.

Today we are told that mass incarceration was an “unintended consequence” of Clinton’s deeds.

For that to be true, however, Clinton would have not only had to ignore the Sentencing Commission’s findings but also to ignore the newspaper stories appearing all around him, which can be found easily on the internet to this day.

It is impossible to imagine that Bill Clinton, the brilliant Rhodes Scholar, didn’t understand what everyone was saying. How could he sign such a thing right after giving a big speech deploring its effects? How can he and his wife now claim it was all an accident, when the consequences were being discussed everywhere at the time? When everyone was warning and even begging him not to do it? Maybe it didn’t really happen. Maybe it was all a bad dream.

Until then, we have our orders from the mainstream media: Clinton didn’t mean it. Clinton has apologized. Things were bad even before Clinton got started.

It is a hell of a way to do history. Millions of proudly open-minded people are being asked to twist themselves into propaganda pretzels to avoid acknowledging the obvious: that the leaders of our putatively left party aren’t who we think they are.

Frank’s article is well worth reading in full. The reason that Democrats and the Clintons deserve to get hammered on this is because all too often they are allowed by their liberal supporters to rewrite history in their favor, thus enabling them to commit similar acts of political duplicity n the future.


  1. Randall Lee says

    Frank says, “It is a hell of a way to do history. Millions of proudly open-minded people are being asked to twist themselves into propaganda pretzels to avoid acknowledging the obvious: that the leaders of our putatively left party aren’t who we think they are.”

    Such people, on both the left and the right, aren’t truly open minded. They shut their eyes and ears to the truth of history because they want to believe whatever politically correct lie is fashionable at the time. If the lie suits their immediate personal desires and agenda they will accept it.
    It is only when we truly admit the truth of history that we stop making the same mistakes.

    I am happy that Frank and others are exposing this hypocrisy.

  2. John Smith says

    Before anyone comes and says Sanders voted for the crime bill, that is misleading. He was not in favor of it, but compromised on it because of the Violence Against Women Act, Assault Weapons ban and COPS.

  3. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Assault Weapons ban

    That’s now two things I know about Sanders which must be rank ignorance or calculated dishonesty.

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