Back in the day, there was no confusion about which party was tough on crime: Republicans were the law and order party. Whether it was the death penalty, support for tough sentences, or rejecting the therapeutic approach to incarceration, for several decades this was one of the key differences between the two parties. This distinction had much to do with Republican victories from between 1980 and 1992.
President Trump and his campaign are making some use of this tradition, particularly in light of the Black Lives Matter crime wave of recent months. This ad, which shows vulnerable Americans will be on their own in a world of defunded police, is powerful. It speaks to a real and legitimate concern following the summer of riots and crazy calls to defund the police—risks amplified by the simultaneous desire of Democrats to take away Americans’ guns.
Are Republicans Saying Biden Is Too Tough on Crime?
Similar messages have criticized Kamala Harris’ supposed record as a tough prosecutor. Together, this kind of talk shields the Democratic ticket from its biggest liability.
As a factual matter, Biden used to be more moderate, channeling the interests of the working-class voters whom he knew well from his days in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He knew then that crime and the engineered destruction of blue-collar communities were deep anxieties of his constituents. Toughness on crime allowed him to distinguish himself from the far-Left, which lost legitimacy following the crime wave that peaked in the “crack wars” of the 1990s.
These contradictory messages are a problem. Crime either is a big problem that Republicans have the moral clarity and grit to address, or it’s not. Biden may be a soft character, beholden to his party’s far-Left and open to defunding the police. Or he is some throwback to the Mayor Daley era, fighting hard to stop crime, bussing, and other policies favored by an insulated liberal elite. But he cannot be both.
The measures commentators today want to label “racist”—tough mandatory minimums, anti-gang laws, and “broken windows” policing—were so successful that crime dropped. People moved back to cities. As a result, black and white urban residents lived longer, happier lives. Cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. underwent a renaissance.
The Left’s recent flirtation with soft-on-crime policies is only possible because the relationship between the cause and its effect has been forgotten. Even the Trump Administration has forgotten, by embracing criminal justice reform normally associated with the Left in the First Step Act. Ostensibly this was designed to release nonviolent offenders in a show of compassion. In practice, the law let loose many dangerous criminals who went on to re-offend. This measure was designed by Jared Kushner in a harebrained scheme to help win more of the black vote.
It is somewhat of a myth that minority voters who are potential Republican voters even want soft-on-crime measures. Many vote Democratic for other reasons, but have conservative instincts, including on crime. Trump, after all, did better with black voters and Hispanic voters than Mitt Romney.
Trump voters, whether white or minority, are the kind of people who liked him in New York and supported Mayor Giuliani. These are law-abiding people, who don’t believe the criminal element should define their communities, and who respect Trump’s strength and plain talk.
In other words, knocking Biden for being tough on crime is a really bad idea.
The policies Biden once supported were good in the 1990s, and they’re good now. Crime and disorder are always waiting in the wings. Civilization is fragile. Worrying about racial disparities in the criminal justice system that flow naturally and inevitably from racial disparities in crime is something that only the Left used to worry about. The Right used to understand the importance of color blindness and individual responsibility.
Republicans Rejected Equality of Outcome as the Standard
A colorblind system does not mean that outcomes are going to be equal among races, whether it is in math Ph.D. programs, the NFL, or who ends up in prison. Different groups have different rates of crime and naturally should have differing degrees of imprisonment proportional to those differences. We all find this state of affairs depressing, but more depressing are the atrocities perpetrated by criminals, whose victims would be ignored in the name of anti-racism.
There are two possible reasons for this species of anti-Biden messaging, neither of them good. One is the idiotic idea that somehow we will disrupt the Democratic Party by repeating “Democrats are the Real Racists” for things they did long ago. Proponents like Dinesh D’Souza imagine the scales will fall from the eyes of the party’s core supporters, and the Democrats will implode.
In this fantasy, middle-class families and dysfunctional drug-addled welfare cases somehow have the same values and will vote as we do, so long as the party has the right messaging. This utopian nonsense is a product of both parties’ obsession with purity on racial issues to the exclusion of all other concerns that make for a functioning, decent society.
It accepts the entire moral paradigm of the Left, including the ironic race obsession that flows from utopian demands for racial equality in outcomes, as opposed to the less strenuous and achievable goal of a fair, racially neutral process.
In order to make Republicans the more “woke” party on race, this outreach would abandon issues where the Right is both correct and popular, such as immigration restrictions, opposition to affirmative action, and law and order.
Maybe It’s All A Cynical (And Stupid) Voter Suppression Strategy
It’s also possible this is simply a too-clever-by-half voter suppression strategy. Being a big boy, I am not terribly concerned with the ethics of voter suppression. The key to election strategies is to win. Both sides always try to suppress the other side’s votes through various tactics and messages. The “our guy is so far ahead you might as well stay home” is one. Making it harder or easier to vote is another.
In 2020, getting out the vote and suppressing the vote are likely to be critical factors in who wins. This is what all the mail-in voting brouhaha is about. The traditional campaign activities are dead in the water due to restrictions from the coronavirus and the Democrats’ desire to keep Biden under close control. They are worried he will destroy his chances with some extemporaneous, dementia-driven malapropism. They hope to get votes in spite of Biden being an utterly uninspiring candidate.
The reason this messaging about Joe Biden being “too tough” on crime is too clever is that it will likely cost many more votes than it suppresses. The message is directly at odds with the biggest wedge issue for Republicans: law and order. While Trump’s “expect riots if Biden is elected” message has problems—because such riots are happening right now—the argument still has some weight.
Trump historically has been a law-and-order guy. He has tried, in his own way, to deploy the Department of Homeland Security officials and other resources at his disposal to address some of the worst actors. And today’s riots are mostly happening in Democratic precincts and are being conducted by leftist agitators.
The rioters and looters are emboldened by official neglect from sympathetic Democratic officials, whom they are successfully pushing even farther to the left. While the Trump years have been a time of friction, voters have not forgotten that urban riots first made a comeback earlier during the Obama years, when Obama’s diffidence and nuance only encouraged more riots and disorder. Many think this is what pushed Trump over the top in 2016.
Trump can win this election by drawing bright lines with his opponents and explaining the stakes. The current problems of urban disorder and rising murder rates are palpable and hard for Biden to sugarcoat. Viral videos of old ladies being attacked, cities burning down, and mobs acting like animals speak for themselves.
The close connection of liberalism with crime and disorder is why that word became an albatross that Democratic politicians ran away from for many decades. Trump will not win, however, if he keeps listening to people who do not understand how he got elected, do not understand the nation’s problems, and jump to the tune played by their leftist enemies in trying to prove they’re not racist . . . even if it means tolerance of murder and mayhem.