WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s decision Thursday on a local crime bill sends a national message to fellow Democrats about how he thinks they should deal with Republican criticism of the country’s rising crime rates.
Democrats have overwhelmingly focused on police reform since the George Floyd protests reignited a national debate about race and law enforcement three years ago, but rising violent crime rates and rising perceptions of unease in big cities have prompted a chorus of party strategists and officials to do so to call for a tougher crackdown on Republican attacks.
Biden – who has pushed for tougher crime laws in the past – has sought to bridge the Democratic divide but was forced to choose sides this week when he said he would not allow the Washington, DC city government to legislate to enact that would lower penalties for some criminals.
“If Republicans thought President Biden was going to give them a wedge issue for 2024, they were wrong,” said Democratic strategist Lis Smith, a veteran of former President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign and an architect of the rise of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “It becomes very hard to call him criminally soft after he has denounced defunding the police and reducing penalties for crimes like carjacking.”
Nothing focuses the mind of a White House preparing for re-election like an incumbent receiving just 17 percent of the vote, as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot did Tuesday in the city’s criminal mayoral race.
The DC bill offered a lot of complications. The Democrat-controlled city council passed sweeping criminal justice reform, but then the mayor, also a Democrat, vetoed it. The Council overrode her veto.
But DC’s unusual existence as not fully independent of the federal government means that Congress can overturn any legislative change. A Republican-led bill garnered the support of about 30 Democrats in the House of Representatives and is now set to pass the Senate with a handful of Democrats, forcing Biden to either sign it or veto it. Democrats, increasingly pushing for DC to govern itself, have called on Biden to veto the principle that it’s not up to the federal government to set local criminal codes. But Biden didn’t back down.
“I support DC statehood and self-government — but I don’t support some of the changes that the DC Council has tabled over the mayor’s objections — like lowering penalties for carjacking,” the president said said on Twitter.
The White House is planning an energetic effort to portray him as a deadbeat on crime and to try to nullify any Republican advantage on an issue that has put many Democrats on the defensive.
Next week, the president will ask for increased funding for his Safer America Plan, which targets crime prevention and policing, in his 2024 budget proposal, according to a White House official, according to a White House official. Biden is also expected to continue to publicly highlight his record on crime issues.
More broadly, the White House is preparing to ramp up its crime critique of Republicans, with plans to highlight some efforts by the GOP to cut the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), opposition to an assault weapons ban and calls for the Defunding the FBI. The White House plans to argue that Republicans would cut funding for crime-fighting programs, for example, if they propose to bring federal spending back to 2022 levels.
The effort will look similar to how Biden spoke about crime during his campaign campaign during last year’s midterm elections, the White House official said.
“Republicans in Congress must commit, here and now, to joining President Biden – not to obstructing him – in the fight against the rising crime rates he has inherited,” said White House spokesman Andrew Bates. “Their year-long campaign to cut law enforcement funds in the name of ideology could no longer be at odds with the country.”
Biden’s decision blindsided congressional Democrats, most of whom recently voted to leave the DC law in place — especially since the administration indicated last month that the president would take the opposite position — and is widely seen through a political lens .
“It’s smart politics. He came across a circular saw,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told reporters in the Capitol. “You don’t want to be left over from the mayor of DC.”
Veteran Democratic strategist James Carville, who was a top strategist for Bill Clinton when he successfully overcame the longstanding perception that Democrats would win the presidency at the height of the crack epidemic in the 1990s, said Biden’s move is a good one step, but that the party must do more.
“It shows you the power this issue has gained. Look what happened in Chicago. Look what happened in San Francisco. Everywhere you turn your head,” Carville said, referring to the ousting 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 for most of the 2000s and 2010s, but Carville said politics changed when they started ticking again during the pandemic, though they’re nowhere near as good are high like they were in the 90’s.
“This is a key issue, and it’s one that we should be ahead of on any measure or statistic — but we’re not,” he said of Democrats.
Biden’s move put him in the awkward position of drawing praise from Republicans and criticism from House Democrats, the vast majority of whom are now on record voting against repealing controversial criminal justice reform that could be used against them in GOP assault allegations.
“Biden just hung the House Democrats out to dry. It’s incompetence bordering on hilarity that they waited until dozens of them walked the plank with it,” said Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist who has worked on House campaigns. “Crime as an issue is only increasing in importance. It appears that since Biden appears to be running for re-election, he is informing his party to wake up.”
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed the measure repealing the DC bill with the support of just 31 out of 212 Democrats in the chamber.
Democrats control the Senate, but DC-related issues are given a special fast lane for a vote, and several upper house Democrats — rather than just the usual suspects like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin — said they would vote with Republicans to get that repeal law.
Democrats including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and California Rep. Pete Aguilar blasted Biden on Twitter for undermining the capital’s self-government, while non-voting Member of the DC House of Representatives Eleanor Holmes Norton said it was “a sad day.” for the home of DC” called rule.”
“With crime on the rise across the country, most senators do not want to be seen as supporters of criminal justice reform,” Holmes Norton said in a statement.
Significantly, however, few national Democrats defended the crime bill itself, instead focusing on DC’s ability to govern itself without federal intervention.
Violent crime has risen across the country and in major cities, the Democrats’ main base of support, as inner cities struggle to recover from the pandemic.
Last fall, Gallup found that 56% of Americans who reported crime have gained weight in their area — the highest increase since the pollster first asked the question in 1972. A follow-up poll in January found that 72% of Americans expect it to rise further this year.
According to a new survey from Monmouth University, residents of urban areas reported a 15 percentage point drop in their perceived quality of life from last year in deep blue New Jersey, while suburbanites said their quality of life remained stable.
In DC, home to both local and federal legislatures considering crime statutes, homicides are up 30% from a year ago.
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.
In an interview with local radio station last week, Craig criticized some reformist Democrats over crime, citing as an example a failed 2021 election measure in Minneapolis to abolish the city’s police department and replace it with a new agency.
“There are people who I think have been reckless with their words over the past few years,” she said. “If we as a nation have to choose between social justice and public safety, we all lose. We have to choose both.”