There are two stories to tell about the Bill Clinton era.
One view is of broad-based prosperity. After coming into the presidency in 1993 as the country was still struggling to shake off a recession, Clinton presided over a period of brisk economic growth. Unemployment fell dramatically, from above 7 percent in 1992 to just 3.9 percent at the end of Clinton’s second term. GDP growth averaged 3.8 percent, and median income grew by 17 percent. By the time he left office, the federal budget was balanced and running surpluses.
The dimmer view, espoused by some progressives in recent years, has critics charging that by moving the Democratic Party toward the center and capitulating to Republican demands, Clinton helped fuel income inequality and pursued social policies that have long since fallen out of vogue.
As Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign ramps up, with a rally on Saturday on Roosevelt Island in New York where she is expected to lay out the foundation of her platform, she will have to bridge the gap between those two views, deciding which parts of her husband’s legacy to embrace and which to reject as she works to secure her party’s nomination and stitch together a winning coalition for 2016.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, her challenger in the Democratic Party from the left, seems to view the legacy of Bill Clinton’s administration as a liability.
“The Clinton administration worked arm in arm with [then–Federal Reserve Chairman] Alan Greenspan — who is, on economic matters, obviously, an extreme right-wing libertarian — on deregulating Wall Street, and that was a total disaster,” Sanders told the New Yorker last year. “And then you had the welfare issue, trade policies. You had the Defense of Marriage Act.”
Others too have said that since the Clinton years, there has been a perceptible leftward shift in the Democrat Party as it embraces more populist principles — ideas like cracking down on Wall Street and expanding Social Security that Hillary Clinton will have to embrace if she hopes to maintain enthusiasm among the party base.
“Once there was a great debate in the Democratic Party between a progressive wing and the kind of third way,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director of MoveOn.org, a progressive advocacy organization. “At this point, the progressive wing is the mainstream core, the center of gravity of the party and, really, of the public at large. The public is right in line with the values that were really in dispute during that era.”
In some arenas, it appears that Hillary Clinton agrees, putting distance between her positions and her husband’s record.
In April, she called for sweeping criminal justice reform and “an end to the era of mass incarceration.” It was an era that Bill Clinton concedes he helped begin by signing an omnibus crime bill in 1994 that mandated a federal three-strikes rule, which mandated putting violent offenders behind bars for life if they had two prior convictions, including for drug offenses.
“The problem is, the way it was written and implemented is, we cast too wide a net, and we had too many people in prison,” Bill Clinton said in an interview with CNN in May. “And we wound up … putting so many people in prison that there wasn’t enough money left to educate them, train them for new jobs and increase the chances when they came out so they could live productive lives.”
Hillary Clinton’s campaign has enthusiastically and vocally embraced LGBT rights. It was a different story in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton enacted “don’t ask, don’t tell,” codifying military policy barring openly gay members from serving. Two years later, he signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which forbade the federal government to recognize same-sex unions and permitted states to refuse to recognize them, saying, “I long opposed governmental recognition of same-gender marriages, and this legislation is consistent with that position.”
It wasn’t until 2013 that Hillary Clinton came around to her current views.
The biggest question of her campaign might just be whether the former secretary of state will embrace Bill Clinton–era policies on economic issues.
In 1994 he championed and signed into law the North American Free Trade Agreement, which many blamed for a wave of factory closures and job losses around the country, but Hillary Clinton has been persistently evasive on the issue of trade. She has refused to take a position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the latest trade treaty being negotiated in Washington, saying only that any deal must protect workers and wages.
And while Bill Clinton has been pilloried for deregulating the markets throughout the 1990s, including repealing in 1999 the Glass-Steagall Act, a Depression-era law intended to prevent bank runs — which some say helped precipitate the 2008 crisis — Hillary Clinton has not delved into specifics of how she would regulate Wall Street.
Still, many Americans remember Bill Clinton’s tenure as president as a relatively better time compared with the tumultuous new millennium, said Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf.
“The Bill Clinton legacy helps because voters who are old enough remember the country was working and the country was safe, and since then, it’s been less safe and it hasn’t worked as well,” he said.
Others said that Hillary Clinton, facing a far different country from the one Bill Clinton governed in 1990s, will have to stand on her own merits. For those who remember the era, his record is on balance an asset.
“I don’t think she’s going to have to relitigate the goods and bads of her husband’s legacy. I think generally it’s going to help her with boomers who remember the Clintons’ years as positive ones — years of growth, prosperity and peace and shared prosperity, at that. The ’90s were a great decade for the country for both upward mobility and for sharing the fruits of growth,” said Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., that promotes center-left policy proposals and worked with the Clinton White House.
He added that it was unfair to judge the policies of the past by the much-evolved standards of the present, particularly on social issues.
“If you went back to 1972, I wouldn’t expect the Democratic policies to hold up in the 1990s any more than I expect the policies of the 1990s to hold up now,” he said. “People have to be judged by the standards and reference points of their time.”