Does HRC Need to Repudiate Welfare Reform?

In the endless game of defining where Hillary Clinton is on some ideological spectrum, one way some progressives have chosen is to lay out an ideal agenda–say, Bernie Sanders’ agenda–and test her against it.

But another way is to look back at the things Bill Clinton did that progressives didn’t like, and test her willingness to repudiate them. It’s a game Republicans can play, too, since it enables them to contrast the scary lefty HRC with her “centrist” husband (never mind that her husband, so far, has agreed with everything she’s said to “distance” herself from him, or that Bill was in his day treated as a crazy lefty, too).

We’ve already been through one round of the “repudiate this” game, with criminal justice reform. And a lot of people are trying very hard to force HRC to repudiate Bill’s record on trade agreements.

What’s next? Well, it could very well be the thing Bill Clinton did that probably aroused the most enduring hostility from some progressives: his signature on the 1996 welfare reform bill.

Bloomberg Politics‘ Melinda Hennenberger goes there with considerable force, tracking down former Bill Clinton staffers on both sides of the close and hotly debated decision to sign the third of three bills sent to the president by a Republican Congress nearly twenty years ago. And why, just for the record, is this relevant to HRC’s presidential campaign? It does get a little murky at this point:

In a campaign focused on both income inequality and the opportunity gap, how Hillary Clinton engages with her husband’s record on poverty and the safety net is liable to become a central question. And both Clintons have already said they’ve changed their minds on other issues that were central to his presidency. They no longer stand by his administration’s record on criminal justice—especially the mandatory sentencing guidelines that filled prisons and hollowed out communities—or on gay rights, which were seen so differently by much of the public two decades ago.

That makes sense. But is Clinton’s record on “poverty and the safety net” entirely reducible to the 1996 welfare law? Definitely not; you could make a pretty good case that Clinton’s whole strategy was to shift the emphasis from wildly unpopular, inadequate and state-controlled cash assistance to other, federally controlled income support mechanisms, including the EITC that had already been greatly increased long before the third welfare bill hit his desk. Turns out Hennenberger has another reason for singling it out:

[W]elfare reform was to the Clinton administration what health care reform is to Obama’s; despite the controversy, it’s always been considered a signature achievement.

Yes, it’s been considered a signature achievement, but was never as central to Clinton’s own view of his legacy–heavily focused on job creation–as Obamacare has been to the president after which, after all, it was named.

But for the sake of argument: would there be anything all that shocking with HRC suggesting aspects of the income support system–including the 1996 law–need updating? I supported the welfare reform bill at the time, although grudgingly (nobody on Team Clinton ever wanted a state block grant; indeed, overcoming the crazy-quilt benefit structure of the old AFDC program was part of the whole idea), but never for a moment thought it was some sort of permanent solution that should not be reviewed. Of course a jobs-focused welfare-to-work program succeeded easily in the red-hot economy of the late 1990s and did not succeed so well in the subsequent sluggish-then-disastrous economic conditions since then! Of course the ability to get people intro entry level jobs and into some sort of upward mobility depended heavily on what happened to the EITC, Medicaid, SNAP and many other elements of “making work pay” during a less than supportive Bush administration! If HRC comes out for a major overhaul of the whole system for dealing with extreme low incomes, poverty, and people unable to work, Republicans might cry hypocrisy, but I don’t think many Democrats–“centrist” or not–will complain.

But here’s the real test for me as to whether this even matters: if Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley make bringing back a personal entitlement to cash assistance a notable campaign plank, then HRC definitely needs to address it. I sure haven’t heard it yet, and if relitigating the intra-Democratic wars of the 1990s isn’t a priority for Bernie Sanders, then I don’t know why it should be that important to anybody else.

UPDATE: Shortly after the 15th anniversary of the enactment of the 1996 welfare reform bill, former Clinton adviser Elaine Kamarck wrote an essay for WaMo reviewing the record, and making at greater length and depth (and probably clarity) the point I tried to make about cash assistance being a less important part of the safety net than people realize.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.