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Biden bucks liberals and tells Democrats to get tough on crime

It shows how powerful the issue has become, says James Carville, who helped Bill Clinton counter soft-on-crime attacks during the 1990s crime wave.
President Joe Biden speaks in Warsaw, Poland on Feb. 21, 2023
President Joe Biden speaks in Warsaw, Poland, on Feb. 21.Evan Vucci / AP file

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s decision Thursday on a local crime law sends a national message to fellow Democrats about how he believes they should address Republican criticism of the nation's rising crime rates.

Democrats have focused predominantly on police reform since the George Floyd protests reignited a national debate over race and law enforcement three years ago. But rising violent crime rates and growing perceptions of unease in major cities have prompted a chorus of party strategists and officials to call for a tougher approach to counter Republican attacks. 

Biden — who has a history of pushing for stauncher crime laws — has tried to straddle the Democratic divide but was forced this week to choose sides when he said he wouldn't allow the Washington, D.C., city government to enact laws that would lower some criminal penalties.

“If Republicans thought President Biden would hand them a wedge issue for 2024, they thought wrong,” said Democratic strategist Lis Smith, a veteran of former President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign and an architect of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s rise. “It’s going to be very hard to define him as soft on crime after he’s denounced defunding the police and reducing sentences for crimes like carjackings.”

Nothing focuses the mind of a White House gearing up for re-election like an incumbent getting only 17% of the vote, as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot did Tuesday in the city’s crime-focused mayoral contest.

The Washington, D.C., bill offered a slew of complications. The Democratic-controlled city council passed a sweeping criminal reform measure but then the mayor, also a Democrat, vetoed it. The council overrode her veto.

But D.C.'s unusual existence as not fully independent of the federal government means that Congress can quash any law change. A Republican-led bill got the support of about 30 Democrats in the House and is now expected to pass the Senate with a handful of Democrats, forcing Biden to either sign or veto it. Democrats, who have increasingly pushed for D.C. to be left to rule itself, called on Biden to veto the measure on the grounds that it isn't the federal government's place to determine local criminal law. But Biden didn't acquiesce.

"I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule – but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections – such as lowering penalties for carjackings," the president said on Twitter.

The White House is planning a full-throated effort to present him as tough on crime to try to chip away at any Republican advantage on an issue that has put many Democrats on the defensive.

Next week the president will ask for an increase in funding for his Safer America Plan, aimed at crime prevention and policing, in his 2024 budget proposal, according to a White House official. Biden is also expected to continue publicly emphasizing his record on crime issues.

The White House is more broadly preparing to intensify its criticism of Republicans on crime, with plans to highlight some GOP efforts to cut the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS program; oppose an assault weapons ban; and defund the FBI. The White House plans to argue that by proposing that federal spending return to 2022 levels, for instance, Republicans would cut funding for programs that fight crime.

The effort will look similar to how Biden talked about crime while campaigning during last year’s midterm elections, the White House official said. 

"Congressional Republicans need to commit here and now to joining with President Biden — not obstructing him — in fighting the rising crime rate he inherited," said White House spokesperson Andrew Bates. "Their years’ long campaign to slash law enforcement funding in the name of ideology couldn’t be more at odds with the country.”

Biden’s decision blindsided congressional Democrats, most of whom had recently voted to let the D.C. law stand — especially since the administration indicated last month that the president would take the opposite position — and is being widely seen through a political lens.

“It’s smart politics. He was running into a buzz saw,” South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters at the Capitol. “You don’t want to get left of the D.C. mayor.”

Veteran Democratic political consultant James Carville, who was a top strategist to Bill Clinton when he successfully overcame long-standing perceptions that Democrats were soft-on-crime to win the presidency during the height of the crack epidemic in the 1990s, said Biden’s move was a good step, but that the party needed to do more.

“It shows you the power this issue has become. Look what happened in Chicago. Look what happened in San Francisco. Everywhere you turn around,” Carville said, referring to the ouster of Lightfoot and former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin in a recall election last year. 

Crime largely disappeared from national politics while rates were at historic lows during much of the the 2000s and 2010s, but Carville said the politics changed when crime rates started to tick back up during the pandemic, even though they’re still nowhere near as high as they were in the 1990s.

“This is a front and center issue, and it’s one that we should, by any measure or statistic, be ahead of — but we’re not,” he said of Democrats.

Biden’s move put himself in the uncomfortable position of receiving praise from Republicans and criticism from House Democrats, the vast majority of whom are now on the record voting against overturning the controversial criminal measure, which could be used against them in GOP attack ads.

“Biden just hung House Democrats out to dry. It’s incompetence bordering on hilarity that they waited until scores of them walked the plank on this,” said Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist who has worked on House campaigns. “Crime is only gaining salience as an issue. It seems that Biden, as he apparently runs for re-election, is informing his party to wake up.” 

The Republican-controlled House passed the measure to overturn D.C.’s law with the support of only 31 out of 212 Democrats in the chamber. 

Democrats control the Senate, but issues related to D.C. get a special fast-track to a floor vote and several upper chamber Democrats — and not just usual suspects like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin — said they would vote with Republicans to overturn the law.

Democrats like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and California Rep. Pete Aguilar denounced Biden on Twitter for undermining the capital city’s self-governance, while D.C.’s non-voting House delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, called it “a sad day for D.C. home rule.

“With the nationwide increase in crime, most senators do not want to be seen as supporting criminal justice reform,” Holmes Norton said in a statement.

Tellingly, however, few national Democrats gave full-throated defenses of the crime law itself, focusing instead on D.C.’s ability to govern itself without federal intervention.

Violent crime is up nationwide and in major cities, Democrats’ main support base, as downtowns struggle to recover from the pandemic.

Last fall, Gallup found that a record 56% of Americans reported crime had gone up in their area — the highest uptick since the pollster first started asking the question in 1972. A follow-up survey in January found that 72% of Americans expected crime to continue to rise this year. 

Residents of urban areas reported a 15 percentage point drop in their perceived quality of life over past year in deep-blue New Jersey, according to a new Monmouth University poll, while suburbanites said their quality of life remained stable.

In the nation's capital, home to both the local and federal lawmakers considering the crime law, homicides were up 30% over last year.

Last month, Rep. Angie Craig, a Minnesota Democrat, was attacked in the elevator of her Washington apartment building by a man with 12 previous assaults on his record.

In an interview with a local radio station last week, Craig criticized some reformist Democrats on crime, pointing to, as an example, a failed 2021 ballot measure in Minneapolis to abolish the city’s police department and replace it with a new agency.

“There are people that have been, in my view, reckless with their words over the past few years,” she said. “If we have to choose as a nation between social justice and public safety, we’ve all lost. We have to choose both.”