Bill Clinton campaigned for his wife in Philadelphia Wednesday, but things went off the rails quickly. His remarks were repeatedly interrupted by protesters critical of the former president’s role enacting welfare reform that effectively decimated the program and a crime bill that is widely considered to have exacerbated mass incarceration for African Americans by implementing a “three strikes” rule mandating life in prison for anyone convicted three times for violent felonies, among other issues.
Now that Hillary Clinton is running for president, her support for her husband’s bill has gotten renewed scrutiny. Protesters have brought up a particularly incendiary episode two years after the 1994 bill, in which she invoked the myth of “superpredators,” a racially loaded term used to dehumanize black youth and justify locking them up for their entire lives.
“Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today,” the Democratic candidate said in February. “My life’s work has been about lifting up children and young people who’ve been let down by the system or by society.”
On Wednesday in Philadelphia, however, her husband offered up a more vehement defense of the bill, applauding its role in reducing violent crime. He also appeared to defend the superpredator myth, telling activists, “I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African American children. Maybe you thought they were good citizens, [Hillary] didn’t.”
Referring to Black Lives Matter, Bill Clinton added, “You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter. Tell the truth. You are defending the people who caused young people to go out and take guns.”
Watch (the quoted remarks begin at about 3:30):
During a debate in March, Hillary Clinton acknowledged her husband’s crime bill was flawed, saying, “There were some aspects of it that worked well, the Violence Against Women provisions have worked well, for example. But other aspects of it were a mistake.”
Likewise, during a speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People last year, Bill Clinton admitted that the crime bill “made the problem worse” but defended his underlying motivations, saying, “We had gang warfare on the streets. We had little children being shot dead on the streets who were just innocent bystanders standing in the wrong place.”
Clinton also defended his welfare reform bill at Wednesday’s rally.
“They say the welfare reform bill increased poverty. Then why did we have the largest drop in African American poverty in history while I was president?” Clinton said, going on to blame Republicans for gutting welfare programs after he left office.
The evidence, however, indicates that the 1996 welfare reform bill decimated the program, in part by turning welfare into a block grant in which states get a fixed amount of money no matter what residents’ needs may be, rather than one where the federal government shares fluctuating costs. It also imposed work requirements as a condition of receiving benefits (even though many educational and GED programs don’t count), and lifetime limits that kick people off after five years. Some states actually cut people off sooner, which has been found to significantly increase hardship for those who lose the assistance.
Neither the Philadelphia chapter of Black Lives Matter nor the Clinton campaign immediately responded to inquiries about the former president’s comments.
During an event Friday in Erie, Pennsylvania, Bill Clinton half apologized for the way he engaged with protesters the day before.
“Now I like and believe in protests. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t cause I engaged in some when I was a kid,” he said. “But I never thought I should drown anybody else out. And I confess, maybe it’s just a sign of old age, but it bothers me now when that happens.”
“So I did something yesterday in Philadelphia. I almost want to apologize for it, but I want to use it as an example of the danger threatening our country,” he continued. “I rather vigorously defended my wife, as I am want to do, and I realized, finally, I was talking past [the protester] the way she was talking past me. We gotta stop that in this country. We gotta listen to each other again.”