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Sanders, Clinton & Welfare Reform

Bernie Sanders has been civil in his campaigning so far, declining to attack Hillary Clinton even when pushed by the media. He's questioned her refusal to come out with positions on things like the TPP and the Keystone Pipeline, but he's just said he thinks it's strange and told reporters to go ask her about it. I think the tone he's set for the campaign is admirable, but he shouldn't be above drawing a distinction from Clinton on policy matters. He definitely shouldn't get into Benghazi and stuff like that, but he should be highlighting differences in their positions. And, maybe now that Clinton has swung the first punch, he seems to be doing that, talking about the Clintons' 1996 Welfare Reform bill.

In an phone interview Thursday with Bloomberg, the Democratic presidential candidate said that history will not look kindly on the 1996 overhaul of the New Deal anti-poverty program, which then-President Bill Clinton enacted over the objections of many liberal Democrats, including Sanders, who was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives at the time.

And in case you think it's not fair to blame Hillary for something her husband did decades ago, she was both deeply involved in its passage and still supporting it at least as recently as 2003:

Sanders' chief rival for the Democratic nomination, front-runner Hillary Clinton, wrote in her 2003 book, Living History, that she supported the bill, despite some concerns, because she "felt, on balance, that this was a historic opportunity to change a system oriented toward dependence to one that encouraged independence."


Clinton wrote that she "worked hard to round up votes" for the her husband's legislation, which imposed time limits on welfare benefits and work requirements on beneficiaries.

This isn't a small thing. This is really what the Democratic party is about. Do we support a social safety net or not? This is really the core of what Sanders' campaign is about. And just as importantly, and especially relevant since Clinton was attacking Sanders on race, do we buy into the right wing myth that welfare is a way to allow lazy minorities to get away with not working?

In his own book in 1997, Sanders called the bill "the grand slam of scapegoating legislation..." Now a U.S. senator from Vermont, he doubled down on that assessment in his interview with Bloomberg. "I think that history will suggest that that legislation has not worked terribly well," he said, arguing that too many politicians would rather target the poor than poverty.

"I mean, that's what Ronald Reagan's 'welfare queen' was all about," he said, referring to the former Republican president. "It was the illusion that we're spending huge sums of money on people who are cheating, who are taking of the welfare system and so forth," he said.

"And what I said then is what I believe to be the case right now," Sanders added. "We need to figure out why people are in poverty. We need to get people out of poverty... Instead of giving tax breaks to billionaires, we should make sure that every person in this country lives in dignity." He added, "What I do see is very often, people trying to pit the middle class against low-income people - often people of color - and that is called scapegoating and I strongly object to that."

Clinton criticized Sanders for only looking at racism through an economic lens. But it's worth noting that when you concede to the welfare queen myth, you're not just using racism to divide us economically. You're also validating racism, increasing the likelihood that more people will buy into racist ideas. In other words, if the Clintons had pushed back on the welfare queen myth instead of capitulating to it, the explosion of racism that we've seen more recently might not have been so strong. The TEA party, after all, was formed on the basis that their taxes have been going to support undeserving minorities.

Coincidentally, this topic came up during the Republican debates last night. Per Politico's fact-check:


Rick Santorum: "I ended a federal entitlement"

The former Pennsylvania senator got into fact check trouble back in 2012 when he made a similar claim in his last presidential run. So it's no surprise he entered hot water again by taking such a large degree of credit for the landmark 1996 law that reformed the welfare program.

Santorum certainly had a large hand in the law President Bill Clinton signed just months before his reelection. He did serve as a floor manager for starters. But he certainly isn't alone either as the measure's champion. Clinton, for one, had promised in his own 1992 campaign to "end welfare as we know it."

When both you and Rick Santorum agree that something is awesome, you are probably doing it wrong.

By fnord12 | August 7, 2015, 8:16 AM | Liberal Outrage


On a side note, I read the history of the Welfare Queen a while back. It's interesting how a criminal can be misinterpreted as the average person.


Fnord, I'm not agreeing that actually trying for welfare reform was pandering to racists. The Democrats had been trying for two decades- ever since Carter. The problem was that the actual bill completely gutted the safety net, to the point where people that had been calling for welfare reform for decades like Moynihan warned that it would be a disaster if another major recession happened, and Clinton ignored them.

I mean i'll agree that in an abstract sense there isn't anything necessarily wrong with "welfare reform". But what was actually done, and the reasons for it, are very much in my mind about conceding to the right's arguments, which were very much about using the specter of lazy black welfare recipients.

Carter nowadays is thought of as very liberal, and in some ways he was, but he was also the first Democrat post Nixon. And with Carter we already saw the Democrats veering to the right. I don't know in what context Carter was trying to do welfare reform, but the Republican's Southern Strategy was very much about using racism to turn people against the welfare state, and that began a new political reality for Democrats due to the shifting voting demographics. As Bob's link shows, Reagan was talking about welfare queens in 1976, and that's also when he talked about young "bucks" buying T-Bone steaks with their foodstamps. And it's not like Reagan was the first to do that sort of thing (i'll link to the infamous Lee Atwater quote). There may have been a real need for some kind of welfare reform, but that doesn't say that in 1976 there wasn't pressure from the right to do it for the wrong reasons. And partnering with people like Rick Santorum to get it done says to me that that was also the case in 1996.

Clinton made welfare reform a priority in order to take the issue off the table politically, i.e. concede to the Republicans on that issue so that he could focus on other items on his agenda. And when you concede to people who are making an argument that is relying on a racist myth, you're not just giving up on the program but also validating the racism, helping people to believe that lazy black welfare recipients are a real problem. Clinton wasn't "pandering" to racists, but he was capitulating to them.

Interesting article here: