WASHINGTON — As the congressional midterms approach, President Joe Biden and Democratic candidates across the country are seeking to blunt Republican attacks, echoed in conservative media, that they have not focused on the issue of crime.
Elevated crime rates continue to pose a conundrum for elected leaders, law enforcement officials and prosecutors across the country, in Republican and Democratic jurisdictions alike. The rise in violent crime that began around the start of the coronavirus pandemic has seemingly become an intractable problem, even as institutions like schools have reopened.
Speaking in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Tuesday, President Biden touted his proposal for addressing crime, highlighting his long standing support for police officers, but also arguing that to be effective, officers needed better training and deeper connections to the communities they serve. He also called for stricter gun control laws.
Public safety has emerged as a top concern according to polls, and could pose challenges in November, as Democrats campaign furiously to retain control of Congress. Biden intends to campaign with many of them in the weeks ahead, returning to his native Pennsylvania two more times in the days to come: to deliver a speech on the state of democracy on Thursday in Philadelphia and to mark Labor Day in Pittsburgh on Monday.
In his Wilkes-Barre speech, the president also went on the offensive against Republicans who claim to back law enforcement but have worked to discredit the congressional investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S Capitol, during which supporters of then-President Donald Trump assailed members of the Capitol Police.
“Let me say this to my MAGA Republican friends in Congress,” Biden said, using what has become his favored shorthand for the GOP. “Don't tell me you support law enforcement if you won't condemn what happened on the 6th. You can't do it. For God's sake, whose side are you on?"
Some especially ardent supporters of Trump have called for defunding of the FBI after a search warrant was executed at the former president’s South Florida home earlier this month. Such calls have baffled more mainstream conservatives. “Crime has been a winning issue for Republicans, and they need to be careful not to jeopardize that," Republican strategist Alex Conant told Axios.
Biden had intended to deliver a speech in Wilkes-Barre earlier this month, but was prevented from doing so after he tested positive for COVID-19.
His proposal on addressing crime, unveiled in late July, is called the Safer America Plan. Pegged to the forthcoming fiscal year budget, it devotes $37 billion to the hiring of 100,000 police officers and improving the training they receive; funding community anti-violence programs; clearing court backlogs; and increasing funding for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, which now has its first Senate-confirmed director in seven years.
Republicans, meanwhile, have even used the “defund” attack against Democratic lawmakers like Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, a former Central Intelligence Agency officer who is an adamant critic of that movement and has, in fact, introduced a police funding measure in the House. And some conservative commentators have falsely argued that Biden’s efforts to improve the state of policing are little more than attempts to slyly implement the defunding agenda.
An architect of the 1994 crime bill, Biden is today caught between a progressive base that favors ideas like decarceration and ending cash bail and a Republican Party that sees any concession to criminal justice reform as Democratic unwillingness to confront crime as a problem purportedly of their own making.
Biden’s public safety plan calls for $15 billion devoted to state grants to further “criminal justice reforms such as repealing mandatory minimums for non-violent crimes.” While advocates have argued that such initiatives are both fair and effective, Republicans have grown resistant to reformist proposals, even though some in the GOP supported criminal justice reforms enacted by the Trump administration.
“We can talk about infrastructure, education, low taxes. None of that will amount to much if you don’t have safe communities,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, one of the Republican Party’s leading culture warriors, said on Tuesday. “We need to be more concerned with helping the victims of crime than placating the perpetrators of crime.”
Accusations that Democrats are unsympathetic to crime victims are, in the plainest terms, disingenuous. Earlier this month, President Biden signed a bill that created a process for homicide victims’ families to push for the reopening of cold cases. The bill was introduced by Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a Republican leader in the Senate.
And as Biden pointed out in Pennsylvania, public safety is a matter of racial and economic justice, since it is poor communities, and communities of color, that inordinately suffer from violent crime. “The communities, by the way, that want the police more than any other community are the tough, poor communities,” the president said. “Black, white, immigrants. They need the help. They want the help."
Yet high-profile crimes, and the media coverage they inevitably attract, understandably cause public anxiety. Over the weekend, Washington Commanders running back Brian Robinson Jr., was shot during an attempted carjacking as he left a bar in the popular H Street area, just blocks from the White House. His injuries are reportedly not life-threatening.
Aware of how potent the issue of public safety is likely to remain, Democratic candidates for Congress in the key battleground states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have released television advertisements highlighting their own crime-fighting proposals.
“We did whatever it took to fund our police and stopped gun deaths for five years,” said John Fetterman, the Democratic Senate nominee in Pennsylvania, in an ad released on Tuesday. Currently the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, Fetterman is the former mayor of Braddock, a hardscrabble town outside of Pittsburgh. The ad criticizes his opponent, the TV celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz, who Fetterman says “wouldn't last two hours here in Braddock.”
In Wisconsin, lieutenant governor and Senate candidate Mandela Barnes has sought to fend off attacks that he is a “defund ally.” He has also been accused of excessive spending on his security detail.
“I'll make sure our police have the resources and training they need to keep our community safe and that our communities have the resources to stop crime,” Barnes says in his new advertisement. He calls charges that he is in favor of defunding the police and abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency “a lie.”
The debate on crime is closely tied to the debate on gun control. If crime is one top concern, gun violence is another. And since guns are used in the vast majority of violent crimes, the two issues are inextricably connected.
Earlier this summer, Biden signed a raft of gun control measures. In Wilkes-Barre, he vowed to do more. “I am determined to ban assault weapons in this country,” he said, taunting Second Amendment absolutists who say that such restrictions would infringe on their constitutional rights.
“And for those brave right-wing Americans who say it’s all about keeping America independent and safe,” he said. “If you want to fight against the country, you need an F-15. You need something a little more than a gun.”