Off-Script Bill Clinton Triggers Storm of Critics After Touting Welfare, Prison Legacy

Though nobody likes getting interrupted during a speech, Bill Clinton is not getting many rave reviews for his confrontation with racial justice activists on Thursday. (Image: ABC News/Screenshot)

Off-Script Bill Clinton Triggers Storm of Critics After Touting Welfare, Prison Legacy

'You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter,' former president tells racial justice activists who interrupted campaign rally

Riled by protesters who repeatedly interrupted a speech on behalf of wife and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia on Thursday, Bill Clinton is now under fire (and trending on Twitter) for how he responded to those challenging the political pair's record on criminal justice and welfare reform passed under his presidency in the 1990s.

While several people near the front of the crowd shouted and raised signs--including ones that read "Hillary Clinton is a Murderer" and "Clinton crime bill destroyed our communities"--Clinton defended the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and the welfare reforms he enacted, but apparently went "off script" by defending the idea of so-called young black "superpredators" and claiming that Black Lives Matter activists (who recently forced Hillary Clinton to apologize for her use of the term) are actually guilty of defending violent drug dealers and murderers.

"I don't know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out on the street to murder other African American children," Clinton told the protesters at one point. "Maybe you thought they were good citizens, [but Hillary] didn't... You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter. Tell the truth. You are defending the people who caused young people to go out and take guns."

Watch the eleven-minute exchange here:

According to ThinkProgress, neither the tone nor the timing of Bill Clinton's remarks will likely be welcome by his wife's campaign:

Now that Hillary Clinton is running for president, her support for her husband's bill has gotten renewed scrutiny. Protesters have brought up a particularly incendiary episode two years after the 1994 bill, in which she invoked the myth of "superpredators," a racially loaded term used to dehumanize black youth and justify locking them up for their entire lives.

"Looking back, I shouldn't have used those words, and I wouldn't use them today," the Democratic candidate said in February. "My life's work has been about lifting up children and young people who've been let down by the system or by society."

And as Mother Jonesobserves:

Clinton's remarks come almost a year after he renounced the very same crime bill, implying that he knew at the time that some of the sentencing provisions were too harsh, but that that concern was trumped by his desire to pass the overall bill. Clinton appeared to take the opposite stance on Thursday, asserting that the policies of his administration were worth it because of how many black lives were allegedly saved.

In his remarks, Clinton also said that black and other low-income communities should be thankful that the economy did so well under his presidency and dismissed the idea that poverty worsened because of his policies. If the reforms were so bad, Clinton asked his detractors in the crowd, "Then why do we have the largest drop in African-American poverty in history when I was president? The largest in history."

Writing for the New York Magazine, however, Eric Levitz pushed back on Clinton for defending his welfare reform by arguing it would have been successful if not for the later behavior of Republican lawmakers. Writes Levitz:

One problem with Clinton blaming Republicans for "taking away" people's welfare is that, without his law, they wouldn't have beenable to. Before the welfare-reform act, the federal government guaranteed assistance to impoverished families with dependent children who met a given set of eligibility requirements. Clinton's law replaced that federal guarantee with block grants to the states. That allowed Republicans (and many Democrats) at the state-level to shift welfare spending away from their poorest, least politically engaged constituents. It was not difficult to predict that Republican governors would use this new authority in the manner Clinton now derides, or that a system of inflexible block grants would drive up the rate of extreme poverty. Peter Edelman, an assistant secretary in Clinton's Health and Human Services Department, resigned after his complaints about the welfare bill went unheeded. In 1997, he explained the problems with the block-grant system in an article for The Atlantic:

First, that there will be no federal definition of who is eligible and therefore no guarantee of assistance to anyone; each state can decide whom to exclude in any way it wants, as long as it doesn't violate the Constitution (not much of a limitation when one reads the Supreme Court decisions on this subject). And second, that each state will get a fixed sum of federal money each year, even if a recession or a local calamity causes a state to run out of federal funds before the end of the year.

Fifteen years after the welfare-reform act went into effect, extreme child poverty had increased by 150 percent.

Meanwhile, the response among many progressive social activists and critics on Twitter was not kind towards Clinton's performance:

For added context, last week legal scholar and author Michelle Alexander sat down with MSNBC's Chris Hayes for an extended interview regarding the legacy of Clinton-era reforms and why she remains highly skeptical of Hillary Clinton as the candidate who can be trusted to end mass incarceration or curb the endemic poverty and inequality exacerbated by such laws and policies. Watch:

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