According to an otherwise unremarkable report in The Hill on a characteristically milquetoast speech, Hillary Clinton finally and belatedly addressed the ongoing violence in the city of Baltimore. But that dispatch also contained a series of perfect metaphors for Clinton’s second presidential bid.
According to that report, Clinton addressed the “heartbreaking” violence in Baltimore from the safe confines of a lavish campaign fundraising event in New York City. The 150 guests at the Manhattan event either donated the maximum $2,700 to her campaign or raised $27,000 as a bundler, what Team Hillary is calling a “Hillstarter.”
During that event, The Hill reported, Clinton furrowed her brow and candidly addressed the other half’s plight. “The tragic death of another young African-American man, the injuries to police officers, the burning of peoples’ homes and small businesses,” she said. “We have to restore order and security. But then we have to take a hard look as to what we need to do to reform our system.”
“She added the country must ‘reform our criminal justice system” and made a reference to ending ‘mass incarceration,’” The Hill’s report read, “but the specifics were drowned out by applause.”
Poor, Hillary. Those elusive specifics always seem to somehow end up being “drowned out by applause.” It’s not her fault that she is perceived as a blank slate, running for the White House because it is her due rather than as a result of a calling to public service. It’s her screaming fans, an inquiring media, a vast right wing conspiracy; any or all of these just make it impossible for her to be fully understood. It’s not her fault, you see. It never is.
On Wednesday, in a speech to Columbia University in New York, Clinton will finally make herself clear. According to reports, the former secretary of state will address criminal justice reform and will claim that racial disparities in the American justice system are unfair, discriminatory, and in need of redress.
Clinton will lay out her vision for criminal justice reform, centering around an “end to the era of mass incarceration,” according to an aide who provided a preview of her remarks. Those changes include addressing probation and drug diversion programs, increasing support for mental health and drug treatment and pursuing alternative punishments for low-level offenders.
She also will call for body cameras for every police department in order to increase transparency and accountability in a way that benefits both officers and members of the public.
The press will be keen to portray this as a unique response to the urban unrest of the last year, but it is not. In 2008, Clinton lamented the “disgrace of a criminal-justice system that incarcerates so many more African-Americans proportionately than whites.”
Republicans would do well to respond to Clinton’s claims not by nodding in agreement. The statistics don’t lie. Republican presidential candidates would serve their candidacies and the country well by noting that the breakdown of the African-American family, enabled by increased dependency on government social welfare programs, has facilitated the conditions whereby a disproportionate number of black Americans find themselves prison inmates. Dispassionate analysts have demonstrated repeatedly that the high rate of black incarceration compared to that for whites is due to the fact that African-Americans are more likely to commit crimes rather than the ephemeral notion of institutional racism. But the GOP can’t argue with the statistics, and they should not.
Republicans have little to fear from Clinton’s shift in tone on the matter of criminal justice reform. Her record on this issue and that of her former boss, President Barack Obama, do not help her make her case.
The Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel observed that Bill Clinton’s record on criminal justice in the 1990s, a record supported by his wife, contributed to the conditions she laments today.
Clinton’s rhetoric on criminal justice has changed significantly since the 1990s, when she was first lady and when President Bill Clinton signed a massive 1994 crime bill into law. At the time, many politicians in both parties — including Clinton herself — were pushing for more prisons and stricter sentencing laws.
While running for president in 2007, Clinton was asked at the Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum whether her husband’s crime bill was “one of the primary factors behind the rising incarceration rate for blacks and Latinos.” Clinton acknowledged that it had contributed.
In the autumn of last year, former Attorney General Eric Holder touted the administration’s success in reducing incarceration rates and noted that crime in general has been falling for over two decades.
“Surely we can agree it’s a good thing that for the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together,” the president said in his 2015 State of the Union address, “and use that as a starting point for Democrats and Republicans, community leaders and law enforcement, to reform America’s criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.”
But The Washington Post’s fact checkers observed that the issues are slightly more complex than either Obama or Holder made them out to be. “The [incarceration] rate may decrease from year to year, but it does not always mean there were fewer people in prison,” The Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee wrote. “In 2013, the total number of prisoners in state and federal facilities increased over the 2012 total for the first increase since 2009. But because of the general population increase, the rate still decreased.”
Clinton will not be positioning herself in opposition to Republicans when she delivers her address on crime and racism today. As she has on issues ranging from welfare reform, to same-sex marriage, to free trade, Clinton will be staking out a position of opposition to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton is running against the Democratic Party’s record. Republicans would do well to note that, congratulate Clinton on her repudiation of the last two Democratic presidents, and to proceed with the project of conservative criminal justice reform. As is ever the case, Hillary Clinton’s worst enemy isn’t the GOP but herself.