How Bill Clinton's Political Legacy is Causing Problems for Hillary Clinton

From free trade to incarceration, the presidential candidate must face the former president's record, not always to her benefit.

Former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton attend the Oscar de la Renta: American Icon reception at the William J. Clinton Presidential Center on July 08, 2013 in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Photographer: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

With Bill Clinton's approval rating surpassing both his wife's and the current president's, he would seem like an ideal surrogate for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

He also, however, comes with political baggage in the form of a concrete political record from his eight years in the White House. He governed as a moderate, after all, supporting or enacting policies that liberal Democrats often now deride. That creates difficulties for Hillary Clinton, as she seeks support from the well organized and vocal left wing of the party.

In fact, on key issues from free trade to bank regulation, some Bill Clinton's biggest achievement could come back to haunt her.


His Stance: In 1993, Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, over the objections of labor groups, saying it would "permit us to create an economic order in the world that will promote more growth, more equality, better preservation of the environment, and a greater possibility of world peace."

Her Stance: She repeatedly praised NAFTA, but in 2007 also called it a "mistake" and said that any new free-trade agreement must protect American workers.

How It Could Hurt: Labor groups, which often provide key funding and organization for Democratic candidates, have fought extending President Obama fast-track authority to negotiate a new free-trade agreement. They have also had harsh words for those who would support trade authority. “We expect those who seek to lead our nation forward to oppose fast track,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said in a speech on April 28 without naming Clinton. “There is no middle ground, and the time for deliberations is drawing to a close.” At least one challenger to Clinton for the Democratic nomination, independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, has made his opposition to free trade a signature talking point.


His Stance: Bill Clinton said that the 1994 omnibus crime bill, which he signed and which established mandatory life sentences for those convicted of a third violent felony, was "one of the reasons that" he sought the presidency. (He has since said this "cast too wide a net.")

Her Stance: "It’s time to end the era of mass incarceration," Hillary Clinton said in an April 29 speech at Columbia University. “We need a true national debate about how to reduce our prison population while keeping our communities safe.”

How It Could Hurt: Protests have erupted across the country in the wake of police killings, becoming an cause célèbre for many on the left. Protestors have often identified high incarceration rates for non-violent offenses as too stringent and cast them as an example of overzealous criminal justice system, especially toward African-Americans. The Clintons' history on that issue could run afoul of that energy, further giving those on the left reason to doubt her bona fides.

Big Banks

His Stance: Bill Clinton rolled back Depression-era regulations that had forbade banks from taking risky bets when also handling everyday Americans' money.

Her Stance: Hillary Clinton supported the Dodd–Frank Act of 2010, which reinstated many of the limits.

How It Could Hurt: The Democratic is clamoring for a candidate who talks tough on Wall Street. Usually that's Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has said she isn't running, rather than Clinton, who receives big donations from the financial sector. If economic progressives stay home, it could hurt Clinton in a primary against Sanders or other candidates who have had harsh words for the banks, or even in a general election.

Same-Sex Marriage

His Stance: He helped ban gays serving openly in the military and federal recognition of gay marriage before becoming a forceful advocate for both.

Her Stance: A Hillary Clinton spokeswoman said in April that her boss hoped Supreme Court would find that gay couples have a constitutional right to marry. Earlier, Clinton had said she believed marriage should be reserved for straight couples or should be left up to the states.

How It Could Hurt: Hillary Clinton followed the same trajectory as many other Democrats, but came to full support for gay marriage later than many of them did. As a result, she could look belated, out-of-touch, or calculated.

Common Core

His Stance: In 1994, Bill Clinton signed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which allowed the federal government to give money to states with curricula that met federal standards. (Amid congressional disapproval, he never appointed anyone to the board that would have administered the grants, according to PBS.)

Her Stance: The purpose of Common Core is to "expect students to achieve across our country, no matter what kind of school district they were in, no matter how poor their family was," Hillary Clinton told an audience in Iowa in April, according to the Washington Post. She also voted for No Child Left Behind as a senator. 

How It Could Hurt: Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton agree on this one, but many teachers' and parents' groups have condemned the initiatives.

Gun Control

His Stance: Bill Clinton signed an assault weapons ban in 1994.

Her Stance: “I was disappointed that the Congress did not pass universal background checks after the horrors of the shootings at Sandy Hook,” she said in 2014, according to Time. “I will speak out [on this subject] no matter what role I find myself in” in 2016.

How It Could Hurt: Again, the Clintons agree with each other, and on this, they're in-step with most liberal Democrats. A majority of Americans, however, think laws around guns should stay as they are or get less restrictive, according to Gallup.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.