Administration

The Memo: Some Democrats worry rising crime will cost them

President Biden will address rising crime rates at the White House on Wednesday — an acknowledgement that the issue has become too hot to ignore for his party ahead of next year’s midterm elections. 

Democrats have long been vulnerable to the charge that they are “soft on crime.” Republicans and their media allies are already making the case, having struggled to get traction against Biden on other issues.

“If you’re law enforcement, you’re going to be very cautious about doing your job when you see that the Democrats are never going to back you up,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) told The Washington Post in a story published Monday. 

Crime “could be the issue that, frankly, makes it impossible for Democrats to hold on to the House next year,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic consultant.

Sheinkopf argued that too many on the left “don’t understand that crime and disorder are unacceptable to the entire population. People will lie to pollsters and go into the voting booth and vote for the person they think is going to protect them.”

The abruptness with which crime has returned to a central role in political debate is striking.

Violent crime rates fell for years after the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s faded. Senior law enforcement officers like Bill Bratton, who served stints as police chief in Boston, New York and Los Angeles, accrued near-celebrity status. Crime became less politically salient, too.

Now, things have changed. 

Homicide rates rose about 25 percent nationally last year. The figures were even worse in many cities. And the problem is not abating.

The murder rate in Atlanta has risen more than 50 percent year-on-year as of May. In Miami, the murder spike is around 30 percent. Similar patterns have played out in smaller cities. A New York Times report earlier this month highlighted Jackson, Miss., where the homicide rate rose 70 percent in the first three months of 2021.

The reason why crime is spiking is the subject of fierce and often rancorous debate. Broadly, liberals suggest it is the consequence of the trauma and social disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, while conservatives assert it is linked to left-wing rhetoric and protests that have undermined law enforcement.

The issue puts Biden in a tough spot, because he is facing conflicting pressures.

Progressives want police reform and view Biden with skepticism on the issue because of his central role in passing anti-crime legislation in the 1990s. 

Biden has edged away from a campaign-trail promise to create a national police oversight commission. But progressive activists are maintaining their pressure for police reform. So too are some Democratic members of Congress.

“When we said qualified immunity has to go, we meant it,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) tweeted earlier this month, referring to a legal thesis that makes it harder to sue police. “Full accountability for individual police officers.”

Johnetta “Netta” Elzie, a prominent civil rights activist, told this column that she was concerned that Biden’s Wednesday remarks would “lean into the ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric that comes so naturally to him.” 

“What is the future of the Democratic Party if he wants to go with this ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric while Republicans are saying this is the most dangerous the country has ever been?” Elzie added. “The rhetoric on both sides leads to what? Over-criminalizing and over-policing minority and Black people.”

Biden allies try to make a virtue out of his capacity to withstand these competing demands.

In their eyes, the president’s ability to rebut Republican attacks while also making his disagreement plain with the “defund the police” faction of the left shows he is in step with the broader public.

The White House, aware that the summer months typically see an even sharper rise in violent incidents, is trying to decouple rising crime rates from the timeline of the Biden presidency. 

Press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at Monday’s media briefing that there had been “a rise in crime over the last five years, but really the last 18 months.”

Psaki emphasized that the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill passed at Biden’s behest in March included funds intended “to ensure that there are police that are kept on the beat.” 

The message was clear: Biden wants to fund the police, not defund them.

The president is also expected to emphasize the connection between lax gun laws and violence on Wednesday — though this does not readily explain why murder rates have risen so sharply recently.

For Democrats who believe “defund the police” is a politically disastrous slogan, the New York mayoral race underlines the imperative not to drift too far left.

As voters go to the polls in party primaries Tuesday, crime has become a top issue. 

The front-runner for the Democratic nomination is Eric Adams, a former New York Police Department captain who casts “defund the police” as hard-left dilettantism. Affluent young leftists, in Adams’s view, ignore how working-class communities suffer worst of all when crime rates spike.

Among the four leading candidates to win the Democratic nomination, only one, civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley, has called for a steep reduction in police budgets.

“You are seeing crime exploding in every major city and what is the progressive solution? De-prioritize policing,” said one exasperated Democratic strategist who asked to remain anonymous. “It may sound great on paper, but it ignores how voters are reacting.”

But there can be dangers in hewing to a hard line, too.

When crime was surging a generation ago, Democrats worked hard to toughen up their image — but they did so in ways that often look distasteful in retrospect. 

Then-first lady Hillary Clinton in 1996 referred to “super predators” — a remark that drew renewed controversy during her 2016 presidential campaign, in part because of its racial subtext.

Biden in the 1990s referred to “predators on our streets” and diminished the idea of social causes of crime.  

“It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re the victims of society,” he said in 1993. “I don’t want to ask, ‘What made them do this?’ They must be taken off the street.”

Those were the kinds of attitudes that fed into the crime legislation during Bill Clinton’s presidency, which was enthusiastically supported by Biden. At a town hall event during the final stretch of last year’s presidential campaign, Biden admitted the legislation had been a mistake. 

Sheinkopf, the New York strategist, at the time helped make ads advocating for that legislation for the Clinton White House.

The ads “met the moment — the emotional moment — but the crime bill was lousy public policy,” he says now.

Biden needs to meet the current moment without repeating the mistakes of the past.

It’s a tall order, and the stakes are high.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

 

Tags Ayanna Pressley Bill Clinton Crime Hillary Clinton Jen Psaki Joe Biden New York mayoral race

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