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Biden and BLM must set aside differences, focus on beating Trump

Biden and BLM must set aside differences, focus on beating Trump
© Godofredo A. Vásquez - Pool/Getty Images

Joe BidenJoe BidenGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Senate approves two energy regulators, completing panel Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race MORE isn’t nearly as visible, but he’s leading President TrumpDonald John TrumpGeraldo Rivera on Trump sowing election result doubts: 'Enough is enough now' Murkowski: Trump should concede White House race Scott Atlas resigns as coronavirus adviser to Trump MORE in every key battleground state and even some – including Texas – that no one expected to be up for grabs in 2020. 

At the same time, the former vice president is taking heat from Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the progressive left, who complain that his stance on policing and criminal justice reform is too tepid. 

These divergent realities reflect two large tensions that Biden must manage adroitly to unite his fractious party and prevent Trump from winning in November. 

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The first is between movement and electoral politics. The slayings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and other African Americans have triggered nationwide outrage and overdue soul-searching among white Americans over endemic racism in our society. 

Despite Trump’s bleating about “terrorists” and “law and order,” Americans overwhelmingly support the protests. In a significant shift, majorities now approve of the Black Lives Matter movement and say racism is a key 2020 issue. 

Biden welcomed the protests as a “wake up call for the nation” and has embraced a ban on chokeholds and reforming the “qualified immunity” standard that shields violent cops from legal liability. But he has firmly rejected activist demands to “defund the police.” Biden knows some of the angry rhetoric arising from the streets bleeds into a generalized hostility toward police — a position anathema to him and rank and file Democrats.   

In democracies, there’s always an awkward dance between protest movements and elected leaders, even those friendly to the protesters’ cause. The former think in terms of moral absolutes and maximal demands for heady goals like “social justice” that are hard to define, much less legislate.  

The latter think in terms of the compromises and trade-offs necessary to build political coalitions broad enough to win elections and govern. Activists bring genuine passion and energy, but often have a weakness for panaceas and utopian remedies that can’t win majority support.   

We saw that tension play out in the Democratic primaries, when many candidates rushed to prove their progressive bona fides by embracing “Medicare for All,” free college, open borders, immediate bans on oil and gas production and other radical postures. Political reporters, avid for conflict, played along by routinely misrepresenting millennial activists as the Democratic “base.” If that were true, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate Overnight Defense: Defense bill among Congress's year-end scramble | Iranian scientist's assassination adds hurdles to Biden's plan on nuclear deal | Navy scrapping USS Bonhomme Richard after fire Biden faces new Iran challenges after nuclear scientist killed MORE (I-Vt.) would be the party’s nominee. 

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Biden kept his head and refused to be caught up in the Twitter stampede. He had a better feel for where the center of gravity within his party lies and won handily. His instincts were vindicated when African Americans – a mainstay of the party’s actual base – rallied behind him in South Carolina

Which brings us to the second tension, which is generational. Black voters are more socially moderate than white millennials. While 88 percent of older African Americans have a favorable view of Biden, just 57 percent of young black voters do. Only 68 percent of these voters say they intend to vote for Biden, compared to 85 percent for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden budget pick sparks battle with GOP Senate Katko fends off Democratic opponent in New York race Harris County GOP chairman who made racist Facebook post resigns MORE in 2016. 

Can the 77-year-old Biden spark more enthusiasm among younger voters of all races? He’s working on it. But his strategic imperative is to build a winning coalition in the swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, as well as Florida, Arizona and North Carolina.  

The demographics of these states aren’t as favorable to Democrats as the those of deep blue states. In addition to strong black turnout, Biden will need to hold onto gains Democrats have made with suburban women since 2018, and with the older voters he has been peeling away from Trump in states like Florida and Arizona. In another positive sign, polling suggests he’s doing better than Clinton with blue-collar white voters in the Midwest states, who tipped the election to Trump last time.   

In resisting the siren song of “defund the police,” Biden is in good company. Prominent African American political and police leaders also say that’s not what their communities want. 

“Nobody is going to defund the police,” declared Rep. Jim ClyburnJames (Jim) Enos ClyburnJuan Williams: Clyburn is my choice as politician of the year Clyburn: Biden falling short on naming Black figures to top posts In the final chapter of 2020, we must recommit to repairing our democracy MORE (D-S.C.), the House majority whip and chief engineer of Biden’s stunning political resurrection in the South Carolina primary.

Activists also should heed leading black mayors like Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms and Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot, who leads a National Conference of Mayors’ task force on police reform. Both warn that their constituents want more protection against crime, not less. The legacy of racial discrimination has urban communities both over-policed and under-policed.

What’s more, mayors note the defunding would shrink opportunities for officers of color in big city police departments. Says Lightfoot:

“Let’s break down the practicalities of what defunding means. In our Police Department, about 90 percent of the budget is personnel. When you talk about defunding, you’re talking about getting rid of officers. Most of our diversity lies in the junior officers…Which means you’re getting rid of black and brown people.”

The “defunding” slogan elides such complexities and diverts attention from what’s really needed to transform the culture of policing.

For example, it’s past time to move armed police out of handling routine accidents and the problems of homelessness and mentally illness. Today departments focus most of their training on how to use force rather than how to de-escalate conflicts to avoid using it. Public authorities also need to reject collective bargaining agreements that shield abusive and violent cops from accountability.

In truth, presidential candidates and Congress can at best play a supporting role in changing the culture of policing. The real action is on the ground – in the cities and counties that oversee the nation’s 18,000 police departments – and only then with the cooperation of estranged minority communities. 

The mightiest blow Joe Biden can strike for racial justice is to evict Donald Trump from the White House. It is Trump who has replaced racial dog whistles with a foghorn; who has stirred white grievance and licensed public bigotry by his own example; and who with a smirk has encouraged the police to rough up citizens and governors to “dominate” protesters and rioters.   

Black Lives Matter should keep agitating for change in U.S policing. But ballots matter too, and their differences with Joe Biden are small compared with what’s at stake in this year’s elections. 

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).