Politics

Democrats Have an Opportunity to Win the Crime Debate

The four senators stand in an elevator as Sinema presses a button.
Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, Susan Collins, Joe Manchin, and Mark Warner board an elevator after a a bipartisan meeting at the Capitol on June 8. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

If one had to imagine a scenario in which the Democratic Party lost control of the House and Senate in 2022’s midterm elections, the current picture would probably include rising crime rates and a too slow economic recovery. Predicting such a thing all but guarantees that the actual most salient issue in the country in November of next year will be something completely different and random, like whether robots should do the Pledge of Allegiance, but for the moment money and the murder rate are the big issues in the news that concern almost every type of voter.

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Conventionally, Republicans believe the voting public overall trusts them on “the economy,” and they have the polling history to support that. Donald Trump was more trusted by voters to manage the economy until the very end of the 2020 race despite objectively plummeting jobs and growth numbers, while Mitt Romney was more trusted than Barack Obama on the subject in 2012 despite objectively improving ones. Rising crime, meanwhile, is usually considered to be another good issue for the GOP, which has for decades identified itself to voters as the party of “law and order” crackdowns. Democratic leaders, with some justification, live in fear that their party’s activists, by advocating cuts to police funding, will enable Republicans to sell this tough-on-crime message.

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There was a time, as recent as the Obama administration, that the institutional Democratic Party would react to these threats by trying to, basically, act Republican for the next 18 months. When it comes to the economy, though, as Rebecca Traister writes in New York magazine, that era is over: From Joe Biden to Chuck Schumer to Nancy Pelosi, even the party’s more cautious members have become convinced that the correct political play is to spend government money on programs that will create economic growth (roads, bridges, and whatnot) and make day-to-day life more affordable for working- and middle-class voters (“care economy” things like home health care subsidies and monthly child tax credit stipends).

The issue of crime prevention has gotten kicked around less within the Democratic Party in recent years and decades than that of social spending. But there are some indications that public opinion shifts on the one issue might match those on the other—and that, in fact, from a Democratic perspective, they might even be the same issue. (Did I just blow your dang mind?)

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For one, FiveThirtyEight noted in late June that poll respondents are basically split as to which party does a better job at handling crime. If, as with many other issues, people increasingly say crime is best addressed by the party they prefer to vote for anyway, Democrats should have less incentive to downplay or triangulate the issue—to try to talk about other subjects instead, or to adopt Republican positions. What’s more, it also turns out that what you might describe as “root cause”–based liberal policies for responding to crime, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll released last week, are currently popular as well. In fact, the Post found that spending to create economic “opportunities” in low-income areas and spending to fund social workers who could be called on in place of police officers to deal with tense situations or troubled individuals were the most popular potential methods of addressing crime among the options it gave to respondents:

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That’s only one poll, but it makes some sense that support for this kind of policy would be high right now. Concerns about deficits are low and, as mentioned, enthusiasm for social spending is high. So is consciousness of racial discrimination, both within the sphere of criminal justice and more broadly. This isn’t really news, per se; in fact, it’s the flip side of all the polling about defunding the police that’s been done over the last year—essentially, when you frame the idea as “doing other things in high-crime areas too” rather than simply starving police departments, support goes up significantly.

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Right now, though, immediate Democratic plans for social spending—the “human infrastructure” part of Biden’s plan—are being held back in Congress by, basically, two Democratic senators, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who are engaged in a long effort to pass the “physical infrastructure” bill with bipartisan support. Besides delaying the other infrastructure bill, it means that Congress is effectively frozen for other business—and unable, therefore, to take up anything like a hypothetical “root cause” crime reduction bill.

And because of the Reaganomic orientations of the Republicans whom Sinema and Manchin are pursuing for support, it also means—as pseudonymous economics tweeter James Medlock points out—that Democrats are gradually abandoning some of Biden’s original ambitions to raise corporate and capital gains taxes to pay for social spending. This means that Democrats, in a roundabout way, are stalling on a chance to do something electorally and civically useful about crime—which is purportedly considered the party’s No. 1 liability by the nominally “moderate” members of the caucus who are most worried about “defund the police” rhetoric—in order to do something else (keep taxes low for corporations and enormously rich people) that’s actually about as unpopular as defunding the police. Why are these centrists turning their backs on the concerns of everyday Americans?

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