There’s a certain left critique of Hillary Clinton — Doug Henwood’s being the ultimate example — that take an oddly liberal atomist view of politics. Not only is this type of critique obsessively focused on the presidency, it’s obsessively focused on the unfettered will of the occupant of the White House. As applied to Hillary Clinton, the argument seems to be that legislation her husband signed in the 1990s represents the Real, Authentic Hillary Clinton while her considerably more progressive platform and rhetoric in the 2016 primaries represents the Phony, Pandering Hillary Clinton. This line of thinking completely fails to understand how politics works:
I don’t think so. In part, Clinton may be reacting to Sanders. But really the power of Sanders’ challenge is as much effect as cause. It represents a Democratic coalition that is well to the left of where it was in 1994 or 1976. The political landscape has changed, and even Bill Clinton would govern very differently if he took office today than he did in the ’90s.
For example, Hillary Clinton has been forcefully arguing for an end to mass incarceration and denouncing the racist effects of these policies. But, as first lady, she supported the 1994 omnibus crime bill signed by her husband that severely exacerbated the problem. Some liberals are surely worried that the 1994 statute represents the “real” Clinton and she’ll go back once the primaries are over.
I don’t think, in this case, there’s much basis for concern. It’s important to understand the politics of the era, and how much things have changed. The 1994 omnibus crime bill had, at the time, broad support within the Democratic coalition. Only two Democratic senators voted against the bill, and one was the conservative Alabaman Richard Shelby. Among the members of the House who voted for the bill was…Bernie Sanders. The statute was, in retrospect, a terrible mistake, but it was based on bad assumptions that were widely shared by liberal and moderate Democrats alike at the time. Neither Clinton nor Sanders would make the same mistake again.
Or take gay and lesbian rights. Bill Clinton thought it was politically necessary to sign the appalling Defense of Marriage Act after it passed with veto-proof majorities, and Barack Obama thought it was politically necessary to nominally oppose same-sex marriage. And, yet, the Supreme Court justices they appointed provided four of the five votes necessary to not only strike DOMA down but hold that the right to same-sex marriage was guaranteed under the Constitution. Both Clinton and Obama applauded these decisions, and no serious contender for the Democratic nomination will ever again oppose same-sex marriage. A party’s leaders tend to move with their parties.
To assume the Hillary Clinton of 1994 would be an accurate reflection of the Hillary Clinton of 2017 is to fundamentally misunderstand how politics works. When JFK made Lyndon Johnson his vice presidential nominee in 1960, labor and civil rights groups nearly revolted in view of Johnson’s fairly conservative record representing Texas in Congress. When he became president, Johnson signed arguably the most progressive collection of legislation since Reconstruction. It wasn’t that Johnson changed; it was that he was representing different constituencies in a different political context.
Needless to say, with Republican control of the House all but assured there will not be another Great Society if either Clinton or Sanders get elected. Indeed, the differences between a Clinton presidency and a Sanders presidency are probably much narrower than many supporters of either assume. But even if Sanders doesn’t win, the support he’s generating is having an effect. If the Democrats are going to keep moving away from their timid ’90s, his supporters need to keep the pressure on.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the outcome of the Democratic primary is inconsequential. There remain real substantive differences between Sanders and Clinton in 2016. Most of these differences aren’t very important given nearly-inevitable Republican control of the House. (I actually to some degree accept the defense of the essential unseriousness of Sanders’s health care proposal that the details don’t really matter given that no good reforms are passing during the next president’s term, but this cuts both ways.) But some could still be important: on trade, on some presidential appointments, on some regulatory priorities. I personally think the “Overton Window” is back-of-a-cocktail-napkin junk and don’t see any evidence that presidents trying and failing to do things makes them significantly more likely to happen in the future, but obviously that’s essentially impossible to prove or disprove and if you believe this the stakes of the primaries are larger.
But what Hillary Clinton is saying in 2016 is a much more reliable guide to what her governing agenda would be than legislation that passed with overwhelming majorities in 1994 or 1996. The robust support Sanders is attracting means is an important win for liberals in the Democratic coalition even if he doesn’t win the nomination.