Talking Points

How Democrats can avoid the 'soft on crime' trap

The White House is getting nervous about the spike in violent crime in America's cities. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday announced a "new effort" to reduce the violence, but it mostly amounts to a vague declaration of principles and a directive to U.S. attorneys to update their existing safe neighborhoods plans. Still, it's clear the administration wants to be seen doing something.

No wonder. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows that 84 percent of Americans rank violent crime as a "very big" or "moderately big" problem. Gallup's tracking shows the percentage of people "very dissatisfied" with the nation's crime policies at its highest level in the last 20 years.

Democrats of President Biden's generation have long feared being portrayed by Republicans as "soft on crime." They remember the racist Willie Horton ad that George H.W. Bush used to sink Mike Dukakis' 1988 presidential campaign. It's arguable that they overcorrected in the years that followed. In 1992, Bill Clinton made a show of leaving the presidential campaign trail to return to Arkansas for the execution of Ricky Ray Rector — then, once he became president, signed the 1994 crime bill that disproportionately affected minority communities and is now seen as a driver of mass incarceration. Biden was an enthusiastic supporter of that law.

That makes the whole issue something of a trap. But Democrats don't have to choose between surrendering the political advantage to Republicans or implementing a new generation of "tough on crime" tactics. They can start by putting Republicans on defense by talking about gun policy. 

The case is simple: The spike in violent crime is essentially a spike in gun crimes. Gun crimes are so prevalent in America because guns themselves are so widely and easily available. Republicans stand in the way of even modest gun laws, and in doing so, block the most obvious pathway to reducing violence, saving lives, and making neighborhoods safer.

Substantively, this approach is a no-brainer. Politically, the time might be ripe, while the NRA is in disarray. Democrats addressed the crime issue in the 1990s by leaning into conservative ideas. In 2021, the better bet is to demonstrate that by being soft on guns, it is Republicans who are soft on crime.