Washington — Over the last few days, former President Bill Clinton displayed one of the salient weaknesses of our contemporary politicians. He did this even while reminding Americans of, some would say, his rare lapses in true leadership: his 1994 bipartisan legislation to lower crimes rates in cities. When confronted by low-information Black Lives Matter activists during his speech in Philadelphia last week, he wilted. It took him 24 hours, but eventually, after an eloquent defense of his 1994 leadership, he groveled, whimpering, "I almost want to apologize."
Why apologize, Mr. President? The incarceration of criminals that followed that 1994 crime bill saved many lives, made marginal neighborhoods livable, and allowed the residents of those neighborhoods to live productive lives. Some of those people could have even started climbing up the rungs of the ladder to the middle class. It was a great day for the Republic! Moreover, you made cities with warring neighborhoods better places to live. Why the retreat, Bill?
You said it yourself. In a speech last Thursday, in response to the protests of a group of Black Lives Matter supporters, you quite accurately stated: "Because of that bill, we had a 25-year low in crime, a 33-year low in the murder rate, and, listen to this, because of that and the background-check law we had a 46-year low in the deaths of people by gun violence." You might have added, for the enlightenment of the galoots, that violent crime had more than tripled in the three decades prior to your bipartisan bill. Cities were dangerous places to live. Moreover, the Census Bureau reported that the median family income for African-Americans had increased by 33 percent by the end of your presidency.
The Republican Congress and the Clinton White House have a lot to brag about for their domestic achievements in those days. Yet, some Black Lives Matter activists have completely drowned out these achievements. Last Thursday during his speech, Clinton complained, "I don't know how you would characterize gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out onto the streets to murder other African-American children." In response, the protesters merely mouthed slogans and waved placards, one of which proclaimed, "Black youth are not super predators." The reference refers to Hillary Clinton's characterization of some black youth as "super-predators" in 1996. But she was not just talking about black youth, and she wasn't calling black youths predators. That connection was the activists' lazy characterization.
Yet Clinton has apologized for her choice of words back then. And Bill has backed down from his utterly accurate explanation of the extent of crime violence before his 1994 bill. Now, it seems the whole progressive movement is in retreat; it is accepting whatever criticisms black rights activists have about the bill, such as saying that it led to mass incarceration. If they succeed, they may put us back in 1993. And that is their idea of progress.
As I said, Bill caved after confronting the activists in the crowd. So did Hillary Clinton when she acknowledged that parts of the 1994 bill were a mistake. But certain statistical evidence was with the Clintons. They were right: Crime rates in black neighborhoods have lowered since then. So why are they denouncing their own legacy, which is to say that they passed legislation that allowed for more livable black neighborhoods and more peaceful cities?
The answer seems to be that the Clintons are courting a constituency that has different values than before. Black leaders seem to be buying the idea that the 1994 law was aimed at black youths rather than thugs of all races. So the Clintons are adapting to the values of 2016. This is leadership in the modern Democratic Party: Leaders bend with the winds, even if the winds are going to blow them away.
R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator. He is a Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research and the author most recently of "The Death of Liberalism," published by Thomas Nelson, Inc. To find out more about R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.