Politics & Policy

Why Trump Should Oppose ‘Criminal-Justice Reform’

(Scott Morgan/Reuters)

In the aftermath of the 2012 election, Republicans largely split into two camps. One camp maintained that Mitt Romney lost because he ran a poor campaign, was a perfect foil for President Obama’s class-warfare campaign, and was perhaps the worst-suited prominent Republican in the country to run against Obamacare. To win in the future, this camp argued, Republicans would have to do a better job of advancing a Main Street agenda that would appeal to Americans of all stripes.

The other camp, which included most Republican leadership, adopted the view that Romney lost not because of his own failings but rather because of uncontrollable demographic trends that crashed over him and the party like a wave. To win in the future, this second camp said, Republicans would have to target their policies, starting with “comprehensive immigration reform,” to appeal to various racial groups.

The unfortunate sequel to such open-borders “immigration reform” is open-jails “criminal-justice reform,” which is now being hotly debated by both branches of Congress. The Romney apologists are pushing to pass legislation that would reduce sentences for drug dealers, mostly because those who are convicted under such federal laws are disproportionately non-white. (The popular claim is that they are disproportionately black, but they are actually more disproportionately Hispanic.)

President Obama is spearheading this effort at “reform,” just as he spearheaded “comprehensive immigration reform.” And Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) is serving as the strongest bulwark against it, just as he did on immigration.

One might wonder, therefore, why Donald Trump hasn’t yet waded into these waters — why he hasn’t yet expressed opposition to these efforts to take the criminal-justice system in a left-leaning direction. Indeed, for three main reasons, Trump’s expressing opposition to such open-jails “reform” would seem to be a clear political winner for him.

First, it is a “silent majority” issue that’s right up his alley. With crime and drug use on the rise after more than seven years of Obama, it seems like political malpractice that so many in the Republican party are looking to play ball with Obama and go softer on crime. Indeed, as with immigration, this is an issue on which the divide between the D.C.–N.Y. elites and the wider citizenry is particularly stark. Obama isn’t much worried about having drug dealers scale the White House fence — or the wall at his upcoming compound in Hawaii, Hyde Park, or wherever — but everyday Americans of all races don’t relish the thought of them entering their neighborhoods.

Washington is almost as tone-deaf on crime as it is on immigration.

Polling six months ago by Opinion Research Corporation asked, “Thinking about the criminal justice system, which comes closer to your view — that we have too many drug traffickers in prison for too long, or that we don’t do enough to keep drug traffickers off the street?” By a margin of nearly two-to-one (58 to 30 percent) respondents said that “we don’t do enough to keep drug traffickers off the street.”

In short, Washington is almost as tone-deaf on crime as it is on immigration. Trump has certainly made a great deal of political hay with the latter, and he has an opportunity to do so with the former.

Second, Hillary Clinton can’t do anything but support this bill — she’s boxed in politically — which creates an opening for Trump. Exit polling in 2008 and 2012 found that Obama won among Hispanic voters by an average of 69 to 29 percent and among black voters by an average of 94 to 5 percent. The way for Trump to peel off some of these Americans’ support is not to parrot Clinton’s soft-on-crime message but to make clear he is working to make their neighborhoods safe. After all, Hispanic and black voters, especially in poorer areas, are the ones who stand to lose the most under the bill being considered in Congress, as the criminals who would be released would disproportionately return to their neighborhoods. Trump therefore has a great opportunity to make inroads with a subsection of Hispanic and black voters by making clear that he’s tough on crime and that Clinton is weak.

Third, if this legislation passes, crime — especially drug crime — will likely spike in its wake, and if Trump is elected and hasn’t taken a position on the legislation, he will likely (though unfairly) be blamed for the spike. If, however, he has taken a position in opposition to the bill, he’ll be able to say, “I told you so.” And he’ll be able to cite it as another example of where the politicians who came before him didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t listen to the American people.

For seven long years, Obama’s unofficial slogan seems to have been, “Make America Less Great.” By seeking to reverse America’s recent rise in crime and drug use — rather than pouring gas on that fire — Trump has a chance to take aim at yet another damaging element of the terrible Obama presidency, while picking up votes in the process.

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