Democrats brace for new 'defund the police' attacks

Democrats are bracing for another round of calls to “defund the police” even as a bitter debate continues to rage within the party about whether the slogan hurt them in the 2020 elections.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s trial in the death of George Floyd, coupled with a fatal shooting this week of a 20-year-old Black man by police during a routine traffic stop just miles from the courthouse, has renewed frustration over a lack of progress toward ending such killings.

“I am done with those who condone government funded murder. No more policing, incarceration, and militarization. It can’t be reformed,” progressive Rep. Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibOcasio-Cortez explains 'present' vote on Iron Dome Holding back on defensive systems for Israel could have dangerous consequences Overnight Defense & National Security — Iron Dome funding clears House MORE (D-Mich.) tweeted Monday.

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But while most Democrats share the outrage over the deaths of Floyd, Daunte Wright, Breonna Taylor and a seemingly ever-growing list of Black Americans killed by police, they diverge sharply over whether defunding the police is the solution — or simply a phrase that will cost Democrats elections and leave them without the power to foment change.

“I mean, this defund the police was just a terrible drag on the Democratic Party. It really was. Don’t kid yourself,” veteran Democratic strategist James Carville told Bill Kristol in an interview for the Weekly Standard earlier this month.

President BidenJoe BidenFord to bolster electric vehicle production in multi-billion dollar push Protesters demonstrate outside Manchin's houseboat over opposition to reconciliation package Alabama eyes using pandemic relief funds on prison system MORE defeated former President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 committee chair says panel will issue a 'good number' of additional subpoenas Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — Pentagon officials prepare for grilling Biden nominates head of Africa CDC to lead global AIDS response MORE in the 2020 presidential election, though the contest was close in key swing states. Democrats also retook the Senate after the party won two runoff races in Georgia in early January.

But those successes masked other failures down the ballot for the party.

Democrats lost seats in the House and lost Senate races in states where they thought they had a chance, including North Carolina and Montana. At least some officials blame those losses on the defund the police debate.

Republicans believe the defund the police narrative is a political gift they can use again to win over swing voters and to energize their own political base.

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“This is music to the Republican minority’s ears in Washington,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “That is more powerful for Republicans than any perfectly scripted message.”

On Wednesday, GOP senators argued against the confirmation of Biden’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division, using an op-ed where she’d written about defunding the police against her.

“You just said you don’t support cutting funds from police,” Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump-backed challenger to Cheney decried him as 'racist,' 'xenophobic' in 2016: report FBI investigating alleged assault on Fort Bliss soldier at Afghan refugee camp The Memo: Biden's immigration problems reach crescendo in Del Rio MORE (R-Texas) said. “I find that astonishing and, Ms. [Kristen] Clarke, frankly not credible because I’m holding the article you wrote.”

Clarke responded saying she does not support defunding police departments and that the title was poorly written for the piece.

Democrats are warning that the party cannot let Republicans control the narrative on the issue.

“The one thing we cannot allow is for Republicans to use this as a weapon of mass distraction,” Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright told The Hill. “Or as a weapon of mass political destruction as they have done in the past.”

But there are divisions within the Democratic Party as well.

“I think the ability — using terms like defund the police have led to Democratic losses in this last year,” Virginia Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerPanic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda Democrats surprised, caught off guard by 'framework' deal Schumer announces Senate-House deal on tax 'framework' for .5T package MORE (D) said in November on WAMU’s “Politics Hour.”

Warner’s fellow Virginia Democrat, Rep. Abigail SpanbergerAbigail Davis SpanbergerKatie Hill launches effort to protect Democratic majority in House GOP ramps up pressure on vulnerable Democrats in spending fight Conservative group targets Spanberger, Luria in new ads ahead of reconciliation bill MORE, shared his sentiment, pointing to progressive proposals to redirect funds away from police departments to explain why more than a half-dozen moderate lawmakers lost their seats.

Progressive Democrats rejected those views, arguing it was those policy proposals that helped galvanize their base.

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (N.Y.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), said in February that Republicans misrepresented Democratic views on defunding the police and socialism, saying that the attacks could have played a role in the party’s losses in the House.

“There are a number of attacks that were caricatures and lies lodged by the Republicans that may have had an effect. ... The fact is that the legislation that came out of 116th Congress ... not one had anything to do with socialism or defunding the police. ... I’m proud of what we’ve passed,” Maloney said.

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Polling shows that stripping funds from law enforcement is by no means popular nationwide, with a recent USA Today-Ipsos poll showing that only 1 in 5 Americans support the movement to defund the police.

However, in the wake of Floyd’s death last year, polling showed that Americans believed policing across the country was in need of reform. A Gallup poll released in July showed 58 percent saying changes were needed to policing.

“We can’t allow them, meaning the opposition, to try to paint this picture that we are anti-police. We’re just pro-good policing,” Seawright said. “We have to do something at the federal level, for certain.”

The White House has signaled it supports a legislative path to police reform, pointing to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which bans officers from using chokeholds and entering the homes of suspects without knocking first.

“The president’s view is that there are necessary, outdated reforms that should be put in place; that there is accountability that needs to happen; that the loss of life is far too high; that these families are suffering around the country; and that the Black community is exhausted from the ongoing threats they feel,” White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiGen. Milley faces his toughest day yet on Capitol Hill White House says 'no link' between release of Huawei exec and 'Two Michaels' The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Lawmakers fret over wild week of deadlines MORE said at a press briefing on Tuesday.

“But he also believes that there is a forum for putting in place legislation, the George Floyd Act, that can help put many of these necessary reforms in place, and that part of what needs to happen is rebuilding trust in communities in order to get to a better place,” she added.

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The bill passed through the House in March, but it is unlikely to get the 60 votes needed to pass in the Senate.

The DCCC has also thrown its support behind the legislation, criticizing Republicans for what it says is inaction on the issue.

“Republicans in Congress have spun racist lies and chosen to demagogue on this issue even days after the police killing of unarmed, 20-year-old Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota,” DCCC spokesman Chris Taylor told The Hill. “Having a justice system that treats each American citizen fairly and impartially should not be a partisan issue.”

It’s too early to tell whether the issue of defunding the police will play a significant role in the 2022 midterm elections, but it’s already starting to come up in 2021 campaigns. 

The issue is affecting Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primary after Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said this week he is directing state police to conduct an independent investigation into a traffic stop in Windsor, Va., last year during which two police officers drew their guns and pepper-sprayed a Black Army officer.

Democratic candidate Lee Carter called out fellow progressive candidate Jennifer Carroll Foy on Twitter for saying she did not support defunding the police but supported “properly funding the hiring of highly qualified officers.”

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“This you, saying ‘you’re committed as governor to properly funding’ the police? You CANNOT solve the problems of over policing by increasing their budget!” Carter tweeted.

Foy’s campaign hit back at Carter’s tweets in a statement to The Hill, highlighting her pledge to end qualified immunity and “properly funding the hiring of highly qualified officers committed to public safety and the implementation of comprehensive training programs.”

“Questioning someone like Jennifer, a mother and public defender who has seen up close how broken the criminal justice system is, on her commitment to real police reform is sadly all too familiar,” the campaign said.

Despite the divide within the party, some Democrats say they need to be laser-focused on local, state and federal reform, arguing that it cannot wait any longer.

“We have to get back to the place of we’re not afraid of a routine traffic stop becoming a routine funeral planning or a routine press conference,” Seawright said.