WASHINGTON — How far they’ve come. And I’m not talking about the GOP, whose front-runner representing 37 percent of the Republican electorate has repudiated post-Reagan orthodoxy on trade, entitlement reform, limited government and Pax Americana (and possibly abortion, but who knows?).
I’m talking about the Democrats.
The center-left, triangulating, New Democrat (Bill) Clintonism of the 1990s is dead. It expired of unnatural causes, buried — definitively, if unceremoniously — by its very creator.
The final chapter occurred last week when, responding to Black Lives Matter hecklers denouncing his 1994 crime bill, Bill Clinton unleashed an impassioned defense. He accused the protesters of discounting the thousands of lives, mostly black, that were saved amid the crack epidemic of the time because gang leaders and other bad guys got locked up.
Yet the next day, the big dog came out, tail between his legs, saying he regretted the incident and almost wanted to apologize.
It was a humiliating, Soviet-style recantation obviously meant to protect his wife’s campaign, which depends on the African-American vote to fend off Bernie Sanders.
You know Bill Clinton still believes his crime bill was justified. One cannot definitively prove causality, but it certainly contributed to one of the most radical declines in crime ever recorded in this country. Moreover, the Black Lives Matter charge that the 1994 law was an inherently racist engine for the mass incarceration of young black men is belied by the fact that it was supported by two-thirds of the Congressional Black Caucus (including civil rights pioneer James Clyburn, D-S.C.), justly panicked at the time by the carnage wrought by the crack epidemic ravaging the inner cities.
It’s one thing to argue that the law overshot and is due for revision with, for example, a relaxation of its mandatory-sentence provisions. It’s quite another to claim, as does Black Lives Matter, that it was a vehicle by which a racist criminal justice system destroyed the lives of young black men.
Hillary Clinton, catching up to Sanders, has essentially endorsed that view, demanding an end to “the era of mass incarceration” and the underlying maltreatment of blacks by police and the courts. For the man who changed the image of the Democratic Party 25 years ago, by daring to challenge the reverse racism of Sister Souljah to have to bow to this new — false — orthodoxy, symbolizes perfectly how far the Democratic Party has traveled since the Clinton era.
But the 2016 undoing of classic Clintonism hardly stops there. Take trade. It was Bill who promoted and passed NAFTA. Although Hillary criticized NAFTA when she ran in 2007-2008, as secretary of state she returned to her traditional free-trade stance, promoting and extolling the Trans-Pacific Partnership as trade’s “gold standard.”
Now dross, apparently. She came out against the TPP, once again stampeded by Sanders and the party’s left, i.e., its base. She may not have sincerely changed her view, but there are only so many times you can flip-flop. She’s boxed into the party’s new anti-trade consensus.
Other pillars of her husband’s internationalism were already toppled, pre-2016, by the Obama presidency, often with her active collaboration. At the core of Bill Clinton’s foreign policy lay the notion of America as the “indispensable nation.” It is today quite dispensable, indeed a nation in retreat — from (Hillary’s) reset with Russia to the Iranian nuclear negotiations (which Hillary initiated with secret meetings in Oman in 2012) to the disastrous evacuation of Iraq in 2011.
As has happened with another of Bill’s major achievements: welfare reform. President Obama has essentially dismantled its work requirements (with Bill Clinton’s acquiescence, a sign of things to come). No need for Hillary to repudiate her husband’s legacy. It’s been done for her.
How far has the party moved left? Under Bill Clinton, it gave up on gun control after stinging defeats in the 1994 midterms. Today, Hillary Clinton delights in attacking Sanders for being soft on gun control. Malleable she is. And she sure knows her party. It is nothing like her husband’s party. Which is why she campaigns as Bernie lite — they share the same goals, she says, but she can get things done.
Hence the greatest irony of all: For the last decade and a half, the main propellant for the Hillary-for-president movement has been the rosy afterglow of Bill’s 1990s, the end-of-history era of peace, prosperity and balanced budgets.
Want it back? Vote Hillary. That’s the tease.
Yet a Hillary victory would yield a Clinton Redux animated not by Bill but by Bernie.
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for the The Washington Post Writers Group.