Politics & Policy

Biden Is Missing His Moment on Crime

President Joe Biden walks between engagements at the G7 summit in Cornwall, England, June 11, 2021. (Leon Neal/Pool via Reuters)
The president is uniquely positioned to pull his party back toward the center on an issue of growing importance to voters. So why hasn’t he?

The Democratic Party is worried about crime. “In private and public,” Axios reports, Democrats “are warning that rising crime — and the old and new progressive calls to defund the police — represent the single biggest threat to their electoral chances in 2022.”

If only they had a president who could credibly address this issue.

From the start of his political career, Joe Biden has been a “tough on crime” sort of guy. In 1972, when he first ran for the Senate, Biden alternated between arguing that his opponent was too old and contending that his opponent was out of touch. “In 1950 Cale Boggs hoped to make Americans safe from Stalin,” one Biden flyer proposed. “In 1972 Joe Biden hopes to make Americans safe from criminals.” This would become a theme. In 1984, then-senator Biden teamed up with Strom Thurmond to pass the Comprehensive Control Act, which increased penalties for drug trafficking and set into law a set of harsh “civil asset forfeiture” rules that still obtain. In 1986, Biden wrote a strict federal anti-crack bill, and sold it by complaining that President Reagan was weak and had surrendered in the War on Drugs. In 1994, Biden partially wrote and publicly spearheaded the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act — colloquially known as “the Crime Bill” — that was one of the Clinton era’s signature legislative achievements. Before he became the Democratic nominee and the imperatives changed from “beat Biden” to “beat Trump,” writers such as myself were reminded of these contributions by progressives every single day. If there was one theme that ran through Joe Biden’s political career, we were told, it was his zero-tolerance approach to criminals.

As a classical liberal, a federalist, and an opponent of the War on Drugs, I object to pretty much every one of the crime bills that Joe Biden worked on while in the Senate. To a certain extent, Biden now seems to object to them as well. And yet one does not have to like what Biden did when he was a legislator to grasp that it has left him perfectly placed to push back against the figures within his own party who have gone far too far in the opposite direction. As he made clear during his campaign, Biden is strongly opposed to the idea of defunding the police. By mixing a sustained critique of that suggestion with a humble admission that he took things too far as a legislator, Biden could effectively occupy the middle ground that his literature still claims he holds. Yes, if he does so, outspoken progressives will still shout the odds. And yes, when it comes to election time, Republicans will focus in on those shouters, not Biden. But it is considerably harder for negative messages to stick when the man with the most powerful microphone in the world is refuting them in his own voice. Having ascended to the presidency, Biden now has that microphone.

So where is he?

Thus far, Biden’s messaging on crime has been peculiarly narrow in scope. Asked last month whether Biden believes that there is a “crime problem in this country,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said, “I would say certainly there is a gun problem, and that’s something the president would say.” Indeed, it is. Today, CNBC reports, President Biden will launch a new anti-crime push that focuses in exclusively on guns. Among the policies the administration will adopt are a “zero-tolerance policy for federally licensed gun dealers who violate gun sales laws, such as background check requirements,” and the “the creation of five new federal strike forces led by the ATF to monitor and intercept firearm smuggling along several ‘significant gun trafficking corridors’ between major cities.” In and of themselves, these are both defensible plans. But they’re unlikely to do much of consequence. Between 1992 and 2015, crime in the United States dropped dramatically even as the American public bought hundreds of millions of new firearms and almost every state energetically liberalized its gun laws. The notion that the recent crime wave is the result of loosely drafted or enforced laws is an odd one, to say the least.

If Biden is to focus in on this issue, he would do well to put aside the Kulturkampf stuff and focus in on the things that have changed over the last few years — among them, the villainization of the police, the widespread encouragement of rioting, the abolition of cash bail in many cities and jurisdictions, a dramatic rise in drug addiction, and the installation of a host of district attorneys who are not actually interested in enforcing the law. Some of these problems are beyond the reach of the federal government (although that has not prevented Biden, who ran promising to abolish cash bail, from weighing in before). But some are important cultural questions on which he has every right to share an opinion. As president, Joe Biden cannot stop the spike in local crime — and he should not be asked or expected to do so. But he can watch on TV as figures such as Eric Adams and Abigail Spanberger explain the danger of being seen to be complicit, and he can take away the obvious lesson here: that the Democrats have a weapon in Joe Biden, and, if they’re smart, they’ll use it.

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