On the Crime Bill, Liberals are Eating Their Own

The 1994 crime bill is back at the center of the Democratic presidential debate. This is largely, if not solely, the result of Black Lives Matter protesters interrupting a speech last week by the man who signed it, Bill Clinton, and Clinton’s vigorous and detailed attempt to address their shouted complaints. Fact-checking sites are now parsing Clinton’s comments. The networks are running forensic explainers about the 22 year-old bill. And the elite liberal media can’t stop talking about the controversy. Chris Hayes devoted a segment of his show last night to it. The New York Times editorial pages have two pieces on it today.

In one sense, this renewed interest in the ’94 bill is a good thing. As crime rates have plummeted in the last couple of decades, the press and public haven’t shown as much interest in the subject of crime policy, even though there’s still plenty of crime out there. 1994 was really the last time the country as a whole debated the matter, and few Americans recall–or are old enough to have heard—the details of that debate. And while there has been something of a sea change in expert opinion on sentencing and incarceration since then, a lot of the issues then—how best to train police, what role social programs play in crime prevention—are live issues today.

In another sense, however, the debate is shaping up to be a classic example of liberals eating their own. Most of the provisions of the ’94 bill—the assault weapons ban, community policing grants, stepped up enforcement of violent crimes against women—were and are not controversial, at least on the left. The parts the left really objects to are the stiffening of federal criminal sentences and the provision of federal money for states to build more prisons. These aspects of the law did indeed do damage. But as Mark Kleiman, in his definitive recent piece on the ’94 law, has noted, the damage was limited in scope and far outweighed by the benefits of the law—in particular the provision of extra police paired with management and training reforms, which most experts agree played at least some role in reducing violent crime rates, especially in minority urban neighborhoods.

Still, it’s legitimate to have a debate over the role the ’94 law played in sentencing and prison building. It’s the way that debate is playing out among liberals that is destructive to the liberal cause. First of all, it’s not as if this is an issue that actually divides Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Yes, she stumped for the bill, but he voted for it. Yes, he voiced concerns at the time about its worst provisions (a fact his supporters endlessly bring up). But so did the White House and just about every Democrat on the Hill.

That’s because virtually all of the parts of the bill that liberals object to—the stiffer sentences, the prison building–were put in by Republicans at the time and objected to by Democrats at the time. In congressional negotiations, Democratic lawmakers and the Clinton White House pushed back, and some of the GOP’s most onerous provisions were eliminated or scaled back. But, understanding that Republican votes were needed for the bill to pass, most Democrats—and Bernie Sanders—voted for it.

There were certainly some lawmakers and others on the progressive side who didn’t support the ’94 law. But their objections were the same as those of the Democrats who voted for it. There was almost nobody on the liberal side who actually wanted and advocated for the punitive stuff. The only serious dispute on the left was whether the benefits of the overall bill were great enough that it was worth swallowing the objectionable parts. The vast majority of Democrats thought they were.

That goes for African-American Democrats, too, a fact that the BLM protests, or at least the way they are being interpreted and spun, obscures. For instance, one of the New York Times opinion pieces today, entitled “Did Blacks Really Endorse the 1994 Crime Bill?”, argues that whites who say so are indulging in “selective hearing.” In fact, the authors (three academics) note, the congressional black caucus really wanted a bill with $5 billion in extra spending for drug rehab and early intervention programs and studies on police bias. The black lawmakers did indeed push these alternatives. But it was Republicans, not Democrats, who refused to go along, as the piece itself makes clear–one GOP lawmaker called the extra spending “welfare for criminals.” In the end, members of the congressional black caucus voted for the ’94 bill by more than 2 to 1. They made the same calculation as their white Democratic counterparts: the benefits of the bill outweighed the downsides.

The real division, then, was not between black and white Democrats or between progressive and “establishment” Democrats. It was between Democrats and Republicans. That’s still true today (though less so; some conservatives are coming around, for their own reasons, to the view that we need incarceration and sentencing reform). What’s really happening is that some on the left, included BLM and the editors of The Nation, who lost the argument among progressives in 1994, are attempting to re-litigate the debate, and in doing so are making a dispute between the two parties seem like one within the Democratic Party. The press loves phony controversies like that. Liberals shouldn’t.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.