Hillary Clinton Has to Distance Herself from Her Husband’s First Term

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tags: Hillary Clinton, election 2016

Aaron Brown is a PhD candidate in history at Ohio University and a fellow with the university's Contemporary History Institute.

I attended Hillary Clinton’s speech at Jackie O’s Brewpub in Athens, Ohio on Tuesday and got an earful. I not only heard from supporters telling me how she was the only one who could win in November, but I also learned about what a crook she is from Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders supporters alike. Athens is an interesting city. It lies at the confluence of academia (as the home of Ohio University) and Appalachia – a mixed bag of intellectual professionals and working class mountain (or foothill) folks. It is also in the poorest county in Ohio. Athens County voted for Trump and Sanders in March. When Hillary came to town, she had to confront opponents from all sides.

Clinton’s visit to Athens was part of what some in the media have called her “Appalachia Apology Tour.” She declared a couple of months ago that she would “put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” and enraged many in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio with ties to the industry. She had to confront some of these understandably anxious voters head on this past week, and gave a solid speech in Athens in which she reassured the residents of southern Ohio that she would “stand up for them” in the face of growing Chinese competition, even if they decided to pull the lever for Trump.

But two other protestors caught my attention. One, a college student with a sign that read “Clinton is the Superpredator,” and another, a disheveled man with a beer in his hand who shouted “What about NAFTA?!” as the former first lady left the brewery. They reminded me that Clinton is not only having to contend with a restless and abandoned coal country, she is also battling her husband’s first term. If she fails to effectively confront some of the problems the first Clinton administration wrought in 1993 and 1994, she will fail to appease the throngs of Sanders and Trump supporters who are unhappy with a system they believe incarcerates too many people and transfers too many jobs abroad. Even if Clinton cruises to victory in November, which is likely, she will have to deal with an increasingly frustrated working class that is tired of unemployment, imprisonment, and a general feeling that Washington refuses to heed their concerns.

The college student and (presumably) Sanders supporter’s sign refers to Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill which, among other things, toughened penalties for drug offenders and expanded capital punishment. During the debate over this legislation, Mrs. Clinton referred to gang members as “superpredators” and vowed to put them behind bars. This assertion was met with much applause, from black and white Americans alike. The truth of the matter is that the streets of many American cities were reeling from years of drug-related violence in the early 1990s, and this reality required a robust response. But the result was the further expansion of a punishing criminal justice system that incarcerated thousands of people for minor crimes and created headaches for those seeking a way out of the “poverty to prison pipeline.” Urban minority communities were disproportionately affected by the law, but poor communities in Appalachia (often forgotten in studies of mass incarceration) were also hit hard. Hillary Clinton will have to push for criminal justice reform if she wants to allay some of her detractors’ fears. She is already speaking the language of reform on the campaign trail, but a serious reevaluation of mandatory minimum sentences and the for-profit prison system will be needed if she is to shake the “superpredator” stigma.

As for the man shouting about NAFTA? He was also referencing Bill Clinton’s first term. When Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in December 1993, he was making good on a series of negotiations between the United States, Mexico, and Canada over the course of several decades regarding the creation of a trade bloc in the hemisphere. Again, this was widely praised throughout the countries involved. The main critics were labor leaders, anarchists, revolutionaries, some academics, and people like Ross Perot.

For a president who prided himself on moving the Democratic Party to the center, these “fringe” elements could easily be disregarded. Twenty-three years later, however, feelings about NAFTA are mixed. While the law did integrate the American and Mexican economies to a much greater extent and created many jobs in the process, it shut down factories and laid off thousands of workers in the Rust Belt and elsewhere. (See Chad Broughton’s excellent book Boom, Bust, Exodus for an informative analysis.) It has also helped facilitate the rise of hyper-violent drug cartels that have rendered Mexico almost unlivable in parts. As more people and goods have come and gone across the U.S.-Mexico border, drug activity has intensified.

For residents of southern Ohio, this has particularly hit home recently. Not only has drug use and abuse skyrocketed in this region in the past decade, violence has accompanied it. The recent murder of a family of eight over what appears to be a large marijuana-growing operation has led to speculation that a cartel was involved. Regardless of who the culprits actually were, there is a sense of vulnerability in this region and elsewhere that is indirectly (or potentially even directly) related to the integration of the U.S. and Mexican economies, as well as the failure of our criminal justice system. The sad reality in parts of Appalachia is that a majority of residents in some communities either work for the local prison, are incarcerated themselves, are involved in the drug trade, or are abusers themselves.

Bill Clinton’s first term, often regarded as his most productive, has left a legacy twenty-plus years later that will follow his wife on the campaign trail and possibly into her presidency. Her Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders has reminded her consistently of this legacy, and her Republican challenger Donald Trump most certainly will as well. Hillary Clinton may be the most qualified individual in the race, but she will have to deal with an angry America that wants real reforms and less pandering. It will be up to her to seriously address the problems that her husband’s administration failed to acknowledge or recognize during his presidency, or else she will face an even more difficult challenge next election cycle. And, the residents of southern Ohio and elsewhere in Appalachia will continue to languish in the shadows if their collective condition does not improve in the next four years. Now is the time for Hillary Clinton to prove to the people of Appalachia that she is worthy of their votes.

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