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Is Hillary Clinton's time as first lady fair game?

In Sunday's Democratic presidential debate, CNN's Don Lemon noted that many African Americans blame the 1994 crime bill for sharply increasing mass incarceration among black people and wanted to know if Hillary Clinton has rethought her support for it. In that same debate, Bernie Sanders criticized Clinton's support for the 1996 welfare reform act and noted that he had opposed it.

This is hardly the first time Hillary Clinton has been singled out for her support of one of her husband's policy achievements as president. Is this a fair or even useful line of criticism?

This is a tricky subject, because it's hard to apply general rules for a candidacy like Hillary Clinton's. Quite simply, there's never been a candidacy quite like Hillary Clinton's, at least in American politics1. She's been in the public eye for a quarter-century, and Americans have plenty of material with which to form an opinion, including her eight years in the US Senate and four years as secretary of state. But a substantial portion of her public career is her service as first lady. How do we evaluate a first lady, who holds a position that has no formal role in the policymaking process?

To be sure, quite a few female members of Congress have been elected to replace their deceased husbands, but we contend that presidential elections and their concomitant level of scrutiny are rather unique.

In one sense, Clinton's service as first lady is highly relevant to the position she's applying for now. Bill Clinton advertised her as a potential co-president during the 1992 campaign, and she notably played an influential policy role within his administration, particularly in the crafting of the health care reform effort in 1993 and 1994. She may have played a greater policy role than any other first lady in American history.

Yet the role is a very limited one. If the first lady disagreed with the president on a policy issue, chances are the public wouldn't hear about it. There's little real value in a first lady undermining the president — the media would pounce on such a division, and the first couple knows that. So Hillary Clinton is just presumed to have supported anything her husband pushed for as president.

And this all ignores the complexity of negotiations between the president and Congress. Bill Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform act despite having many criticisms of various components of it. Even if the president felt compelled to sign the legislation, he still got to issue a statement criticizing those components at the time he signed it. The first lady is granted no such opportunities to qualify her support. Bill signed it, Hillary was married to him, and she didn't threaten to divorce him over it, therefore she supported it.

Now, of course, her situation isn't completely unique. Anytime a sitting vice president runs for office, he or she is expected to support most of the outgoing president's policies. But that same candidate is also expected to distance him or herself from the incumbent in order to appear as an individual, which is often accomplished by criticizing one or two policies of the incumbent.

This is difficult to navigate, as Al Gore and George H.W. Bush could no doubt tell you. When Bush gave his nomination speech in 1988 calling for a "kinder, gentler nation," outgoing first lady Nancy Reagan is rumored to have quipped, "Kinder and gentler than whom?"

Here, Secretary Clinton contends with two distinct facets of American politics. First, there's presidential party leadership. As Jon Ladd wrote, she faces a similar challenge to that of Bush Sr., who had to figure out how to lead a party that had evolved ideologically. Clinton is in an interesting position here. Her husband's presidency was characterized by triangulation and third-way politics. In some ways, it was so difficult to define ideologically that it's hard for a politician to figure how to position in relation to it.

It was also quite a long time ago. Many newly eligible voters in 2016 will have been born in 1998, as Clinton's second term was winding down. Under Obama, the Democratic Party has become more liberal on social issues, and economic inequality, if Bernie Sanders's candidacy is any indication, has become more central to the economic priorities of Democratic voters. So what Clinton is doing here isn't just trying to carve out space to be her own politician, like Gore was doing in 2000. It's also trying to lead a party that has moved on from her husband's presidency.

Clinton's situation may be comparable to that of male politicians who have served in high-level positions in other administrations. But the pressures faced by women politicians add another dimension. As first lady, Clinton's femininity and appropriateness in the role were constantly questioned (as when she was first lady of Arkansas). As Shawn Parry-Giles notes in her book Hillary Clinton in the News, the media highlighted Clinton's independence and accomplishments as a drawback of her husband's candidacy and presidency. Parry-Giles quotes callers on a radio show who said that Mrs. Clinton was "tough as nails" and "wants to be president." It was not obvious that these were intended as compliments.

Clinton's time as first lady was in part characterized by efforts to "soften" her image, downplay her ambitions, and scale back her involvement in policy matters. This dilemma extends beyond accomplished first ladies to women candidates for office, however. The costs for violating gender norms are real — and so are the costs, it would seem, for moving away from the strong, decisive persona we've apparently decided is what makes someone "presidential."

This may be a bit of a stretch, but it's perhaps telling that the two issues on which Clinton has been pressed the most are her husband's crime bill and her vote for the Iraq War. Each represents policies on which politicians — especially Democrats and especially women — have felt pressure to prove their toughness, although these represent very different points in Clinton's political career: as the wife of the president, expected to eschew sharing her own points of view; and as a US senator, responsive only to her constituents.

Nevertheless, at each of these points, she tended toward the tougher, more conservative position. She deserves to be held accountable for these positions. But the underlying gender dynamics also invite scrutiny.

Still, Clinton is in the difficult position of being held accountable for policies she may have played no role in formulating and from which she was functionally unable to dissent. Her recent approach to such questions — bringing up the positives of the 1990s — seems like a reasonable one, but it's hard to know just how her Republican opponent would use such a tactic in the fall, and to what effect.