Trump's criminal justice balancing act
Can Trump be the law-and-order candidate while simultaneously painting Biden as being too tough on crime?
In his quest for re-election, President Trump is casting himself as a defender of law and order; a booster of border security and broader immigration crackdown; a sworn enemy of ISIS and the MS-13 gang; and a staunch opponent of the 1994 crime bill.
One of these things doesn't look like the other. Yet the president who campaigned in 2016 warning against "American Carnage" — and hasn't really let up since — has come out swinging against the 1994 legislation, formally known as the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. It was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton at a time when violent crime rates were substantially higher than they are today. The bill encouraged states to get tough on crime and included the infamous "three strikes" rule. The law has had disproportionate effects on African Americans and Hispanics in the years since.
If Trump had taken a position against the crime bill back in 1994, it would probably have been that it contained too much gun control and social spending — remember "midnight basketball?" — rather than that it locked up too many people. And it's really hard to imagine Trump, whose rhetoric on these matters could make Lee Atwater blush, being offended by people calling violent criminals "superpredators."
So what's driving Trump's newfound opposition to the 1994 crime bill now? In short: Joe Biden, who is favored to be Trump's Democratic opponent in the 2020 presidential race.
Trump is replicating a strategy that worked well against Hillary Clinton: running against the more centrist policies of Bill Clinton that two decades later are opposed by both the progressive left and the libertarian right. As a former top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden is more responsible for contents of the crime bill than Hillary Clinton was. After a brutal primary, this could depress Biden's turnout among black voters and uncompromising liberals.
Trump can also draw a sharper contrast with Biden thanks to more recent developments. For whatever reason — I ran through some of his possible motives last year — Trump was crucial to the passage of a criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act, that will help ameliorate the mass incarceration problem to which the '94 crime bill contributed. Trump gave cover to Republicans who wanted to vote for the bill without being labeled "soft on crime" and then signed it into law.
If nothing else, Trump's position shows how much the bipartisan consensus on the crime issue has shifted since the 1990s. Bill Clinton felt he had to sign a crime bill to stay competitive with the Republicans, who took Congress for the first time in four decades later that year. Twenty-five years later, Trump believes criminal justice reform is in his best interest politically and is running on this part of his record ahead of an election year.
Still, the shift is a bit jarring. But Trump has always been a bundle of contradictions when it comes to race. No president has courted so many racially tinged controversies, with his disastrous handling of the Charlottesville racist rally one of the low points. Before he took the presidency, Trump intervened in the Central Park jogger case and led a birther crusade against the first African-American president. But he also spent years hobnobbing with black celebrities and civil rights leaders, and at times he's done more overt minority outreach than any Republican White House aspirant since Jack Kemp.
"Trump had shockingly been very popular with Hispanic and African-American viewers of The Apprentice, more so, more popular than he was with white viewers," observed Joshua Green, author of Devil's Bargain, a book critical of former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon. Green says this was due to the show's favorable portrayal of minority contestants. "So, there was a moment in 2010 where Trump really could have run as a different kind of Republican candidate."
Low black and Hispanic unemployment rates remain a top Trump talking point, and even his showcasing of families of victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants prominently features people of color. But this hasn't helped him win over black and Hispanic voters, with at least one poll showing high percentages of black and Latino voters still identify the president as a supporter of white nationalism.
It's worth pondering: Could a less cynical Republican without Trump's racial baggage successfully run a campaign that is willing to support prudent criminal justice reforms that will improve lives in communities of color and assuage conservative concerns about crime and uncontrolled immigration at the same time? And could they do it without demagoguing these issues? Society should certainly hope so.
The risk, if Trump loses in 2020, is that everything he touched will be tainted, and no Republican will try to do any of these things ever again. If he wins, grifters and opportunists inside his party could read his triumph as an endorsement of his worst characteristics.
But maybe it is not too much to hope that this could be, like the title of that Trump-signed criminal justice reform law, a first step.