Will Hillary Clinton’s Mass Incarceration Speech Solve Some of Her Campaign’s Problems?

Hillary Rodham Clinton, a 2016 Democratic presidential contender, asks the audience to join her in praying for the people of Baltimore during a speech at the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum, Wednesday, April 29, 2015 in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Hillary Clinton calls for an “end to the era of mass incarceration” during a speech at the David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum, Wednesday, April 29, 2015 in New York. Photo: Mark Lennihan/Corbis

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton gave a well-timed keynote address at David Dinkins’s forum at Columbia University calling for police body cameras and an end to the era of mass incarceration. “What we’ve seen in Baltimore should, indeed I think does, tear at our soul,” Clinton said. It was, you know, a fine speech, definitely not the most stirring one you’ll hear on the topic, but the stories of police killings contain such naked injustice and human suffering and pain, that Clinton, in retelling them, had a certain winning exasperation.

But it may have been the start of something, too. For policy reasons and moral reasons, but also for pure reptilian political ones, this is a really interesting issue for Clinton to take on, one that might help her solve some of the trickiest challenges of her presidential campaign:

First, elevating criminal-justice reform allows Clinton to move left in a way that is timely, on an issue on which she isn’t likely to be outflanked by Elizabeth Warren and her supporters. On economic history, Clinton’s beliefs, advisors, and record simply aren’t left-wing; the party’s moved to the left during her public life, and she’s been caught behind it. But criminal-justice reform hasn’t been one of Warren’s major issues, and, more important, Clinton is more or less in line with what the left wants from a president on criminal-justice issues: Many fewer people in prison, an acknowledgement that our criminal justice is very badly biased against poor people and racial minorities and an aggressive effort by the White House to fix those injustices, and a symbolic end to the era of the war on drugs and mass incarceration. After her speech this week, it’s hard to see how Clinton would disagree with any of that.

Second, although Clinton’s coalition will not look exactly like Obama’s coalition, she’d obviously prefer to keep African-American turnout rates closer to what they were in 2008 and 2016 than what they were in 2004. Talking about the problems of mass incarceration doesn’t guarantee you more black votes, as Rand Paul’s advisors can surely attest. But in Clinton’s case it may be a good chance to explain to black voters that she is — in some very basic way — on their side. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some very direct praise for Eric Holder soon. I would be surprised if, should she be elected, Clinton does not appoint an African-American as attorney general. Parenthetically, I’d be fascinated to know if she’d consider returning the president’s gesture from 2008 and asking Obama himself to be her AG.

Third, as my colleague Jaime Fuller smartly pointed out yesterday, the issue gives Clinton a chance to explain the ways in which she is different from her husband. Yesterday the Republican consultant Stuart Stevens, who ran both John McCain and Mitt Romney’s campaigns, tweeted: “As @HillaryClinton speaks on race & justice, would be interesting to ask if she believes [Bill] Clinton’s execution of Ricky Ray Rector was just.” Stevens is right — that would be interesting! (Over to you, Amy Chozick.) But I’m not sure Clinton should fear it. With appalling revelations about the Clinton Foundation continuing to break, it seems wise for Clinton to explain in a little more detail not simply that she isn’t the same person as her husband but some of the tangible ways in which they are different. Here’s a chance. 

Fourth, polarization (as my colleague Jonathan Chait has convincingly argued) probably limits the likelihood that moderate voters will turn against Clinton simply because of the dynastic factor: That she was a senior advisor to the last president and the wife of the third-to-last president, and it might be time to give someone else a chance. Nevertheless, she’s got to explain why some of the country’s most important problems are so intractable that they need a continued, generational effort to fix. Her best case for herself may be arguing that the long post-’60s project of making the country more liberal and more decent and more prosperous is nearly, but not quite, complete. (My suggestion for a Clinton bumper sticker would be: “Finish what your mother started.”) Here is an obvious, remaining injustice.

Fifth, and most important, she’s just right. There are terrible imbalances in criminal justice; in many ways they are, or are related to, the biggest social problems in the country. And the way we prosecute crimes is for obvious reasons much easier for the state to change than, for instance, the balance of income distribution.

There’s one other point to make, a little more cultural. Cities are now objects of aspiration for most Americans, not sources of fear. They are the places where rich, educated people get to live. Urban policy, at some gut rhetorical level, no longer needs to be about containing a place that we have fled but improving a place where we want our kids to live. It has been one of the signal demographic changes in the two decades since Clinton’s husband was elected president. Politicians have not quite figured out how to talk about this in a way that seems resonant, or deep, or transformative, that elevates urban policy to the center of the American project. But soon some politician will. Maybe Bill de Blasio, maybe Julian Castro, maybe Kshwama Savant or Betsy Hodges. Maybe even Clinton herself.

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