Bill Clinton's DNC speech could really piss off Bernie Sanders supporters

The former president will be the main attraction on Tuesday night, and his presence could rip open the wounds Democrats were stitching up the night before.
July 26, 2016, 5:00pm
Photo by Erik S. Lesser/EPA

Besides the sporadic boos and chants from diehard Bernie Sanders delegates, Democrats in Philadelphia survived the first night of their convention on Monday without a total breakdown. Speeches by figures with progressive street cred, including Senator Elizabeth Warren and Sanders himself, seemed to put this week's goal of "party unity" within reach.

Bill Clinton, however, is not one of those figures. And he's up next.

The former president will be the main attraction on Tuesday night, and there's every possibility that his presence could rip open the wounds Democrats were furiously stitching up the night before.

Though often vilified by conservatives as a far-left bogeyman, Clinton's legacies on free trade, financial deregulation, welfare reform, and racial justice have been some of the major targets of the left-leaning Sanders bloc this election season.

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It would be surprising, for example, if no hardcore Sanders delegates heckled Clinton tonight for his role in unleashing the financial sector and setting the stage for the 2008 financial crash. Flanked by a free market brain trust that included Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers, Clinton signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, the now-infamous bill that torpedoed longtime regulations on Wall Street.

Clinton also signed and defended The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a sweet deal for free traders and precursor to the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement. Critics on the left (and Donald Trump on the right) say that these kinds of bills sell out American jobs and help dissolve the last surviving pieces of the country's industrial economy.

Racial justice is another sore spot. Not only did Clinton slash already insufficient welfare in the eyes of lefty critics, he also signed into law the 1994 crime bill that by most accounts upgraded the government's commitment to mass incarceration and initiated a law-and-order crackdown that disproportionately affected black citizens.

If Clinton had since repented on all of the above, Democrats may not have any reason to be on edge. But in fact, he continues to defend his record and sometimes get downright torqued in the process. Confronted with Black Lives Matter protestors while stumping for his wife earlier this year, Clinton launched into a rant about black "13-year-olds hopped on crack," which didn't quite gel with his wife's recent messaging around criminal justice reform and intersectionality.

"You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter!" Clinton hollered at the protesters.

On Wall Street, Clinton has alternatively defended Gramm-Leach ("I don't see that signing that bill had anything to do with the current crisis") and blamed Republicans for forcing his hand.

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On trade, it's another middle finger: "NAFTA is still controversial but people will thank me for it in 20 years," he said in 2014. (Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton defended NAFTA as late as 2004, and was for the TPP before she was against it. The paperback edition of her book, Hard Choices, removed the passage about her support for the pact.)

But Clinton is nothing if not a smooth talker and politically astute. In 2013 he admitted to CNN that "Clinton Democrats" are a dying breed. "There's probably something to that. America is growing more liberal culturally and more diverse," he said.

With that in mind, Clinton likely knows what kind of room he'll be playing on Tuesday night. After all, in 2012, commentators called Clinton the greatest pitchman for President Barack Obama's reelection. He somehow managed to congratulate Obama for "gutting" his hard-earned welfare reform.

Whether both Clintons have truly evolved on these issues remains to be seen, but whatever the case, their party is going to need a real show stopper if they want another Clinton in the White House.

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