President Trump's approval rating is as low as it's ever been. And the Republican Party faces a surprisingly tough fight to hang onto the House in November's midterm elections. Their political prospects, while not exactly grim, aren't all that bright either.
So what should the president do? He could start by associating himself with popular, centrist policies in a good-governance mold. Chief among them: criminal justice reform.
Criminal justice reform is popular. One recent poll found that three-fourths of Americans think the system needs major repairs, and 85 percent believe the system should be focused on rehabilitating, rather than punishing, people.
Already this year, President Trump has shown some interest in this issue. He mentioned it in his State of the Union address, and in January hosted a roundtable discussion on prison reform. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is an advocate, and congressional Republicans have recently made an effort to revive debate on the formerly failed Sentencing Reform and Correction Act, which softens mandatory minimums for certain drug offenders, and also puts pressure on prisons to increase their educational offerings for inmates. The bill faces long odds, and Trump is an unlikely choice for shepherding bipartisan reforms through Congress. But that's no reason to drop the issue. Regardless of what happens to this particular bill, Trump could still do much to promote justice reform, while reaping the political rewards for his party.
To the casual observer, casting Trump as a stalwart justice reformer might seem absurd. Isn't this a central plank of the left's agenda, championed by the very social activists that Trump most loves to mock? Hasn't he always delighted in tough-guy policing, what with his bizarre super-cop stories, pardons for lawless sheriffs, and tantrums over Colin Kaepernick's peaceful protest? Didn't he pick Jeff Sessions, a tough-on-crime hardliner, as his attorney general?
Yes, yes, and yes. Despite all that, a justice reform initiative makes a lot of sense. First of all, we must appreciate that there are multiple components to our criminal justice system, which are interconnected but still separable to some extent. Roughly speaking, there are three different pieces to this puzzle: police, courts, and prisons. All three have problems, but some are more politically palatable than others. Trump does clearly have a soft spot for the gritty warrior-cop persona, so police reform probably won't become his defining issue. But there's plenty of good work to be done on other fronts, through sentencing reform, improved prison management, and better re-entry support. Neither Trump nor his base seems stringently opposed to those things. There may still be a few Republican voters who warm to the lock-'em-up rhetoric of the 1990s, but Trump is the ideal person to persuade them that it's time for a new chapter. Street crime really isn't a top concern for most voters today, so the issue doesn't galvanize Republicans the way it once did. Outside of the prosecutor's office, very few would take offense if the Republicans started preaching the benefits of reform.
Now, the justice system has long been an emotional flashpoint in America's racial landscape, and the far left is clearly more interested in discussing reform from that angle. At the same time, it's not obvious that criminal justice is a particularly high priority for the Democratic Party. Barack Obama took it up only in the waning years of his presidency, while red states have been making progress for several years now in closing prisons and reducing recidivism rates. Prison reform strikes many conservatives as both wholesome and commonsensical, uniting fiscal and social conservatives around a shared vision of redemption and second chances. By ramping up funding for job training and addiction treatment, and experimenting with data-driven re-entry strategies, reformers have promised to trim state budgets while also reuniting former offenders with their families. Those promises have been very appealing to Republican governors, who especially love the notion that sensible reforms might (in the words of Texas politician Jerry Madden) "turn tax burdens into taxpayers."
Many voters have the impression that the right has become reactionary and racist, with paranoid extremists calling most of the shots. A serious and high-profile justice reform push might help to counteract that impression, especially since liberals have been broadcasting the flaws of our justice system for some time now. If Republicans are so reactionary, why are they able to make prudent course-corrections in their policies? If they're so deeply mired in resentment and racism, why do they care so much about helping (disproportionately black and Hispanic) former offenders to find jobs and be reunited with their families?
Trump himself could play a key role in this process. Simply by drawing more attention to successful state-level initiatives, the president might change the tenor of the conversation, while persuading the public to associate justice reform with the political right. Prison reform is primarily a state issue anyway; less than 10 percent of the nation's inmates are housed in federal prisons. On a national level, the movement doesn't need a good negotiator so much as a good publicist. Trump, as we know, excels at publicity.
Of course, Trump is also the weak link in this strategy. He's a moody and erratic spokesman who frequently chooses not to do the smart thing. Even Trump, though, might want to give his party a fighting chance at retaining control of Congress this fall. Learn to pivot, Mr. President. It may not be too late.