The Memo: Democrats face vulnerability as crime moves up voters’ agenda
A new poll released Friday is the latest proof that crime is becoming a crucial issue for American voters.
It’s a development that is fraying Democratic nerves, given the party’s traditional vulnerability on the issue. Many on the center-left fear the “defund the police” slogan favored by some progressives is politically toxic.
The new survey from The Washington Post and ABC News found more Americans than at any time in the past 20 years believe crime is an “extremely serious” or “very serious” problem in the area where they live.
It also found that 59 percent of adults believe crime is extremely or very serious in the United States as a whole — the highest figure in three years.
There are other reasons for President Biden, in particular, to worry about the poll’s findings. It indicated that 48 percent of adults disapprove of the way he is dealing with crime, while only 38 percent approve.
Crime had been a pivotal topic in American politics a generation ago, especially during the worst days of the crack epidemic. But its relevance fell, along with the murder rates, from the closing years of the last century until very recently.
Although crime rates rose sharply last year, the politics of the issue remained mostly on the back burner as the nation dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic and the question of how to get Americans back on their feet economically.
Murders nationwide rose by about 25 percent last year, and many major cities fared worse still. In New York City, for example, homicides rose about 45 percent in 2020. Other cities including Miami and Atlanta have seen spikes this year.
Biden laid out a strategy to deal with crime in a June 23 speech at the White House. The president focused largely on trying to disrupt the trade in illicit firearms. He also emphasized that local authorities could use COVID-19 relief funds to hire additional law enforcement officers.
But other Democrats have grown increasingly vocal.
Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee whose own White House bid was sunk when Republicans painted him as soft on crime, recently told this column that calls to defund the police were “nuts.”
House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) last week compared the defund the police slogan with rioters chanting “Burn, baby, burn!” in the 1960s. Clyburn told The New York Times that the call to take money away from police departments was “cutting the throats of the party.”
Clyburn added, “I know exactly where my constituents are. They are against that and I’m against that.”
A report released in May, commissioned by three liberal-leaning groups, pointed to Republican attacks on “defund the police” as one reason why Democrats did not do as well as they expected in congressional races last November, even as Biden won the presidency.
The report, principally authored by two veteran Democratic strategists, found that the defund slogan was “just one of the multiple issues that Republicans used to paint Democrats as radicals.”
Republicans believe the rising salience of crime as a political issue is to their party’s benefit.
“The rise in crime is putting Democrats on defense across the country,” said Matt Mackowiak, a GOP strategist and the party’s chairman in Travis County, Texas.
Mackowiak noted that the issue is easy to over-simplify, saying that he believes many Americans actually favor police reform, but are turned off by proposals that seem too antagonistic toward law enforcement.
Overall, he added, “if you look at polling, the public has generally given Republicans higher marks on crime and public safety.”
There are other complexities to the issue.
Some Democrats have proven effective in rebutting GOP charges that suggest they might be soft on crime.
Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.) easily retained the seat vacated by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in a special election in early June, despite coming under harsh Republican attack on the issue.
Stansbury hit back with an ad featuring law enforcement officers testifying on her behalf. The head of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), soon afterward told Greg Sargent of The Washington Post, “We believe that Melanie Stansbury created a template for how to respond.”
Other Democrats have suggested trying to cast Republicans as unsupportive of police.
Exhibit A in that case is the GOP’s downplaying of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. About 140 police officers suffered injuries that day, having come under attack by a mob seeking to overturn the result of the presidential election.
The well-known Democratic strategist James Carville penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed in May, urging members of his party to pin the increase in crime on former President Trump.
“A lawless president created the perfect storm for the crime crisis America now faces,” Carville wrote.
There is, too, the possibility that rising crime will strengthen the hand of centrist figures within the Democratic Party over their more militant colleagues.
This appears to be what has happened in New York City’s mayoral race, where former cop Eric Adams leads the Democratic primary by a clear margin after first-preference votes have been counted. Adams has endorsed putting more police on the subways, among other measures.
Only one strong advocate of cutting police budgets — civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley — finished among the top four Democratic candidates in the first round of New York voting.
Still, Democrats could be moving into a difficult period, at least in the short term.
Crime almost always rises in the summer months.
If it does so again this year, the political temperature will get uncomfortably hot for the president’s party.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage