Can Hillary reinvent herself as the justice reformer?

The violence in Baltimore precipitated by what prosecutors believe to be indictable police misconduct should be a winning Democratic issue. President Barack Obama’s party enjoys a near monopoly of support from African-American voters. Democratic lawmakers have championed reforms to the criminal justice system in the past, and their party has traditionally been perceived as more suspicious of law enforcement than their Republican counterparts. So why does it feel like the Democratic Party is losing this news cycle?

There are both simple and complex answers to that question. The uncomplicated answer is that the minority neighborhoods that have exploded in violence over the last nine months have been managed almost exclusively by Democrats for generations. When Democrats seek to address urban unrest, they are confronting the suboptimal results of decades of governance by members of their party. That’s the simple version. The more complicated answer to this question requires a review of the last several decades of American history.

Bill Clinton was elected to the presidency as a new kind of Democrat. Along with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, Clinton sought to offload some of the negative baggage that weighed down his party’s electoral prospects in the past. Not only did Bill Clinton reject the pacifism of Jimmy Carter and George McGovern, he triangulated on the criminal justice issue. Since at least 1968, Republicans had been more trusted to adopt a hard line on urban unrest and crime. Taking office just months after the Los Angeles riots, Clinton immediately embarked on a project of repositioning his party as one that was tough on crime and unforgiving of criminals.

“Our clients were all Democrats, and we produced crime attacks for both primary and general elections, targeting other Democrats and Republicans alike,” the liberal Washington Post blogger Paul Waldman recalled in a 2013 post for The American Prospect. “In 1994, it reached an absolute fever pitch. My firm had about 30 clients, all Democrats, and we did tough-on-crime pieces for every single one.”

During his tenure, President Clinton signed laws that expanded the death penalty, promoted extensive prison terms, reduced funding for inmate amenities, barred felons from living in public housing upon release, funded the construction of new penitentiaries, and discouraged judicial discretion.

According to Salon, this led to a dramatic rise in the prison population.

The explosion of the prison system under Bill Clinton’s version of the “War on Drugs” is impossible to dispute. The total prison population rose by 673,000 people under Clinton’s tenure – or by 235,000 more than it did under President Ronald Reagan, according to a study by the Justice Policy Institute. “Under President Bill Clinton, the number of prisoners under federal jurisdiction doubled, and grew more than it did under the previous 12-years of Republican rule, combined,” states the JPI report. The federal incarceration rate in 1999, the last year of the Democrat’s term, was 42 per 100,000 – more than double the federal incarceration rate at the end of President Reagan’s term (17 per 100,000), and 61 percent higher than at the end of President George Bush’s term (25 per 100,000), according to JPI.

In 1994, First Lady Hillary Clinton lobbied liberal lawmakers in Congress to support that year’s landmark crime bill. By 2007, however, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton lamented the fact that the law she once supported was “one of the primary factors behind the rising incarceration rate for blacks and Latinos.”

Today, the former secretary of state is casting herself a criminal justice reformer in the mold of the most doctrinaire libertarian.

“There is something profoundly wrong when African American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts,” Clinton said in a speech this week denouncing what she called America’s practice of “mass incarceration.”

The burden of atoning convincingly policies that are unpopular today is not Hillary Clinton’s alone to bear. Any Democrat with a legislative record in the 1980s and 1990s has some backtracking to do:

Not all Democrats are predisposed to forgive their party’s officeholders for deferring to prevailing sentiment two decades ago.

“To those who see Hillary’s new crime agenda as a flip-flop, her campaign has a rejoinder: Different policies make sense at different times,” The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart asserted while also noting that the circumstances in the early 1990s were such that the Clintons wouldn’t be public figures today if they had not appeared to be tough on crime. “The problem with this argument is that many of the crime policies the Clintons supported in the 1990s were probably wrong even back then.”

Implicit in Beinart’s admission is that Clinton is what all Americans know her to be: An opportunist. She is a political animal who has devoted her career to winning every news cycle; consistency be damned. Not merely is the former secretary of state a “congenital liar,” as Bill Safire dubbed her, but she is also untethered to awkward constraints like a value set or moral convictions. Her policy preferences are also those of the majority, whatever the majority happens to believe at the time. And that’s why criminal justice reform will not be a winning issue for Clinton.

Clinton has conspicuously declined to address her past as an ardent supporter of harsh anti-crime laws as she casts herself a reformer. Meanwhile, the majority of the GOP slate of presidential candidates also supports reforms to the criminal justice system, and none of them have a record of hypocrisy to defend. Clinton’s authenticity is always suspect, and only the terminally credulous would take her at her word today.

Barring repeated, escalating episodes of urban violence like that which occurred in Ferguson and Baltimore, it’s unlikely that 2016 will be an election that hinges on the issues of crime and justice. If it does, though, Clinton will find the greatest obstacle to winning over the public is her former self.