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Bill Clinton spoke to a Democratic Party that has abandoned his vision for it

Bill Clinton mid-speech
Clinton addresses the convention.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Bill Clinton was the star attraction at night two of the Democratic National Convention, delivering the standard candidate’s spouse speech in typical rambling, anecdote-heavy, Bill Clinton style. From the looks of things, the crowd ate it up.

But even as Bill Clinton the man remains massively popular among Democrats, and even as the party formally nominated his wife as its presidential candidate, Clintonism the idea, the set of policies and tendencies that Clinton introduced into the party to help it recover from the losses of 1984 and 1988, is on the ropes.

Nowhere was this clearer than with Tuesday night’s focus on racial justice. Former Attorney General Eric Holder assured the crowd that Clinton “will end this policy of overincarceration,” and reminded them that she “fought as a senator against sentencing disparities and racial profiling.”

And, most powerfully, the Mothers of the Movement — the mothers of black victims of state violence Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Dontre Hamilton, Hadiya Pendelton, and Sandra Bland — were given a prominent platform. “I am here with Hillary Clinton tonight, because she is a leader and a mother who will say our children's names,” Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, said. “She knows that when a young black life is cut short, it's not just a loss. It’s a personal loss. It’s a national loss.” Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother, added, “In memory of our children, we are imploring you, all of you, to vote this Election Day.”

Now, Clinton would not disagree with any of the ideas being expressed here. But nonetheless, the punitive criminal justice policy being protested at this year’s convention is one that Bill played a role in crafting, and one that he campaigned on extensively in 1992.

Back then, he campaigned in front of black prisoners at the Stone Mountain memorial to the Confederacy in Georgia, where the modern Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1915. He ordered the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a black man so mentally disabled he said he wanted to save the pecan pie from his last meal "for later." He attacked the rapper Sister Souljah for her anti-white comments, equating them with the rhetoric of David Duke. He pushed through a flawed, punitive crime bill.

In some ways, this was a necessary part of Clinton’s political strategy. The promise of Bill Clinton was that this guy, unlike the Yankees who lost the 1984 and 1988 elections for Democrats, could win over working-class whites, and, by combining their votes with black votes, flip Appalachian and Southern states that were otherwise unwinnable. The plan worked: He eked out a one-point victory with white working-class voters, and Missouri, Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, West Virginia, and his home state of Arkansas all went Democratic in 1992.

But it’s not exactly a mystery why the white working class abandoned Democrats to begin with. Political scientist Larry Bartels has found that from 1952 to 2004, support for Democrats declined by nearly 20 percentage points among white voters without college degrees in the South — and barely at all among white voters without college degrees outside the South.

The unmistakable lesson is that the group’s abandonment of Democrats has something to do with white Southerners’ anger over civil rights. Winning back those white Southerners meant tacking right on race. It meant critiquing Sister Souljah. Bill Clinton seemed to think it meant killing Ricky Ray Rector.

Years later, in a country with a much larger black and Latino population and where white voters are a much less significant part of the Democratic coalition, the party has come to not just reject the Clinton approach of the nineties, but feel that rejecting it and embracing movements like Black Lives Matter is the smart move, politically. Black Lives Matter is popular with the Democratic base. Clinton-era crime policy isn’t.

It’s not just crime

Bill Clinton signs NAFTA alongside Al Gore, Bob Michel, and Tom Foley.
Clinton signs NAFTA in 1993.
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

The rise of Black Lives Matter is a clear rebuke of the Clinton record on crime and race — but the rejection of the actual ideology of Bill Clinton’s administration on display at this convention is more thoroughgoing than that.

Clinton did more than anyone to reconfigure the politics of trade such that a large and vocal faction of Democrats championed liberalization and bi- and multilateral trade deals as engines of economic growth and necessary supports for poor nations. He pushed through the North American Free Trade Agreement. He was a crucial part of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) round that saw GATT turn into the World Trade Organization. He oversaw China’s entry into the WTO and the massive rise of Chinese exports to the US that followed.

And this convention featured his wife loudly rejecting a large multilateral trade deal crafted by a Democratic president, egged on by Bill’s ’90s-vintage opponents on the issue like Bernie Sanders and the AFL-CIO.

Bill signed a 1996 bill that overhauled the immigration system to make it easier to deport people and harder to legalize people already here. That helped create the undocumented immigration situation as it currently exists and runs totally contrary to this convention’s repeated vocal opposition to large-scale deportation and its emphasis on celebrating and providing platforms to undocumented immigrants like DREAMers.

Bill emphasized balanced budgeting as the cornerstone of his fiscal policy, but the focus of the convention, and the Democratic platform, is not on straightening out the federal books. Rather, it’s on adding new programs like tuition-free college and infrastructure spending, which might be paid for but will not be accompanied by efforts to close the existing deficit.

Bill was sympathetic to financial deregulation and closely allied with Wall Street, appointing former Goldman Sachs chief Robert Rubin as one of his top economic advisers and Treasury secretaries. The second day of the convention in particular celebrated Sanders’s campaign for taking on Wall Street and emphasizing the need to still further regulate it.

There are some basic areas where Bill and the party are still in alignment. They both want universal health care. They both want to ban assault weapons. They both like a 39.6 percent top marginal tax rate on high earners. But the rightward move Bill engineered in response to the defeats of 1984 and 1988 has been almost entirely undone, and then some. And his wife was a key part of that reversal.