Democrats are grappling with an issue they thought they had largely put to bed in the 1990s: crime. President Joe Biden turned his attention to the wave of gun violence in major cities on Wednesday. The Democratic primary for New York City mayor was dominated by crime, with the candidate pledging to get tough leading (pending the results of ranked choice voting).
Historically speaking, rising violent crime has created major political headaches for Democrats and played to the advantage of "law and order" Republicans. The approach the party took to defuse this issue nearly 30 years ago, such as the Biden-designed 1994 crime bill, had unintended consequences for communities of color and is now out of step with the liberal activist base.
That doesn't mean that base is in step with broader public opinion, however. While the country was horrified by the death of George Floyd, top Democratic data scientists believe "defund the police" hurt the party's candidates in last year's elections. The problem is similar to that which plagued Democrats starting in the 1970s: While concern about crime can easily bleed into racism, it is not synonymous with it.
In fact, black and Hispanic communities need protection from crime. They want better policing — both in terms of fairness and effectiveness — not less policing. "The prerequisite for prosperity is public safety," Eric Adams, the frontrunning candidate for the Democratic mayoral primary in New York City, often says. "Defund the police" can sound like "Don't police certain neighborhoods."
Leading Democrats can sense the problem, but it is not clear what they will be able to do about it. Biden's pitch on a surge in urban homicides largely recycled long-running arguments about regulating guns. Even if such policies reassure voters, which is not a foregone conclusion, Democrats don't have big enough congressional majorities to enact them and any executive action would be fairly limited.
In the meantime, we could be in for a long, hot summer.