Saturday, November 05, 2022

A Way Out of the Trap, Disregarded

To understand what this campaign cycle is about and why, recall events of mid-late 2022. Helpfully US News & World Report reminds us

Early in the 2022 election cycle, concerns about heavy-handed (and even deadly) policing were still very much in the minds of voters, particularly Democrats upset about the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and other cases where police were accused of using over-aggressive methods in dealing with Black and Hispanic people. In April 2021, a jury found a white police officer guilty of murdering Floyd, and there appeared then to be a strong chance that a bipartisan team of lawmakers – Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina – would come to an agreement on national legislation to reform policing by raising professional standards and creating more transparency.

That is an excellent summary until the reporter adds "But by fall, the talks had fallen apart and the national conversation about law and order had shifted dramatically."

The talks hadn't "fallen apart" as if by accident or mutual agreement.  They fell apart because the Republican Party's lead negotiator, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, was not negotiating in good faith. He was all talk, no walk. CBS News reported in September, 2021

"Here's what we know," Scott said. "We have about $1 billion in grant money that goes to police. When you start saying, 'In order to receive those dollars, you must do A, B and C. And if you don't do a B and C, you literally lose eligibility for the two major pots of money — the Byrne grants and the COP grants' — when you tell local law enforcement agencies that you are ineligible for money, that's defunding the police, there's no way to spin that."

"But this would codify the Trump executive orders," Brennan said, referring to former President Trump's June 2020 actions that imposed a variety of similar reforms on police departments across the country. Mr. Trump's executive orders, like the legislative proposal that collapsed this week, also tied federal grant money to departments' adoption of reforms.

A document outlining the legislation and Booker's "minimum requirements" for the policing reform bill has been obtained by CBS News. According to the document, the bill would enact bans on practices like chokeholds and no-knock warrants, limit the transfer of military equipment to local police departments and strengthen federal data collection and oversight. The document also outlined several reforms departments would be required to adopt "to remain eligible for COPS and Byrne grants."

"The Trump executive order I actually agree to," Scott replied. "What I did not agree to was the cuts that come from noncompliance."

Scott wanted something called "police reform" that he could take back to South Carolina liberals (both of them) and African-Americans (of whom there are many). He wanted to tell fellow Republicans, those on the street and donors, that he was still behind President Trump and his policies. It would be all show, no substance. He supported reforms- as long as they wouldn't be enforced. He was (still is) a fake, a phony, and fraud.

But I have not come to bury the GOP's sole black US Senator, but to praise him. Pulling out of talks was a brilliant strategic move, especially because he got in a disingenuous but highly effective dig at Democrats for wanting to "defund the police," which no Democrat talking to him had advocated and which very few police departments in the nation did, or have.

That may have been the beginning of the GOP line of disinformation that Democrats want to "defund the police." It's a theme reinforced by Democrats such as House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who have enjoyed warning their Democratic colleagues to stop pushing for the defunding the police they haven't been pushing for.  Moreover, the breakdown in talks also enabled the Republican Party to focus the latter part of their 2022 campaign on crime, a campaign theme which Democrats have been unable, or unwilling, to counter (spoiler alert: unable).

The US News piece added

By spring 2022, the criminal justice dialogue had shifted to increasing anxiety about crime. The increase in the homicide rate had slowed – killings were up 5% in American cities from the previous year, according to a report by the Council on Criminal Justice. But it was still an increase, and it brought accompanying public anxiety...

An April Gallup poll found that 53% of Americans worry about crime "a great deal," marking the first time since that a majority had a "great deal" of concern about crime (and) a Fox poll in mid-June affirmed those political implications, with 54% of voters saying they trusted Republicans more to handle crime and 39% of respondents saying they trusted Democrats more on the issue.

Of course they do, because the issue was a) highlighted by Republicans; and b) displayed through a racial lens by Republicans. The New York Times explains

As Republicans seize on crime as one of their leading issues in the final weeks of the midterm elections, they have deployed a series of attack lines, terms and imagery that have injected race into contests across the country.

In states as disparate as Wisconsin and New Mexico, ads have labeled a Black candidate as “different” and “dangerous” and darkened a white man’s hands as they portrayed him as a criminal.

Nowhere have these tactics risen to overtake the debate in a major campaign, but a survey of competitive contests, particularly those involving Black candidates, shows they are so widespread as to have become an important weapon in the 2022 Republican arsenal.

In Wisconsin, where Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is Black, is the Democratic nominee for Senate, a National Republican Senatorial Committee ad targeting him ends by juxtaposing his face with those of three Democratic House members, all of them women of color, and the words “different” and “dangerous.”

In a mailer sent to several state House districts in New Mexico, the state Republican Party darkened the hands of a barber shown giving a white child a haircut, next to the question, “Do you want a sex offender cutting your child’s hair?”

And in North Carolina, an ad against Cheri Beasley, the Democratic candidate for Senate, who is Black, features the anguished brother of a white state trooper killed a quarter-century ago by a Black man whom Ms. Beasley, then a public defender, represented in court. The brother incredulously says that Ms. Beasley, pleading for the killer’s life, said “he was actually a good person.”

Notwithstanding all the Monday morning quarterbacking from talk show hosts, Democratic pundits and strategists moaning that the Democratic Party should have responded to the public fears about crime, there are only two ways it could have done so. One would have been by telling voters "I feel your pain" Bill Clinton-style. However, few politicians other than William Jefferson Clinton could have pulled this off, as evidenced by the complete inability of his wife to do so.

Alternatively, Democrats could have agreed with Republicans on their anti-crime rhetoric- the attack on bail reform; on police oversight; on immigrants (allegedly) bringing Fetanyl into the country.

Of course not. The George Floyd protests highlighted the need, as every Democrat of note appears to believe, for cashless bail and for reining in the abuse by law enforcement focused on blacks. And Democrats won't criticize immigration, legal or illegal, because they don't. (After all, they aren't illegal- only "undocumented.")

They were, and are, trapped. When Americans think of crime, they think of street crime, which once was referred to as "crime in the streets." And when most Americans think of street crime, they think of blacks- and to make sure of it, Republicans produce ads of white and black violent protesters and of marauding young black males.

Statistics are clear: blacks disproportionately commit crime while whites commit more than any group. But statistics don't win elections, anyway; video does, particularly that which strikes fear into the hearts of voters.

The issue of crime is not a level playing field, and it's one on which Democrats cannot compete with Republicans. The strength of the Democratic Party, its ethnic heterogeneity, also is its weakness.

Whatever the crime statistics- and they are of blacks disproportionately committing crime while whites commit the greatest number of crimes- it appears to most non African-Americans that blacks are the culprits. And in political campaigns, appearances matter.

Consequently, if Democrats had directly engaged Republicans on crime in any manner relevant to the perceptions and fears of voters, they would have faced a backlash from two groups: white liberals, and blacks. The first would have been damaging; the latter, fatal. Alienating one's base- not the wide swath of voters- but the base rarely goes well.

Nonetheless, Democratic strategists could have capitalized on the fear- the justified fear- of Democratic and Independent voters on a crime-adjacent issue.

It would have been the proliferation of firearms and its deadly consequences. But, alas, that was taken off the table for this election cycle when in summer gun safety legislation negotiated by Democratic senator Chris Murphy with a few Republicans passed Congress and was signed by President Biden.

Good policy is not always good politics, which Senator Scott probably had in mind when he broke off negotiations with Democrats thirteen months ago. A police reform bill may have put the kibosh on the emotion-laden drive to paint Democrats this autumn as soft on crime.

But there was still a chance the Party would present to the public a visual display of the extraordinary stakes in this election. It would have been a substantive campaign based in fact but responding to the justified fears of Democrats and independent-minded voters.

In 2016, Donald Trump made two closely related, yet distinguishable, claims about his opponent: Hillary Clinton is a crook; if Hillary Clinton is elected, we'll have a President constantly under investigation (the height of irony), alarmed at the thought of ongoing controversy.

One of the major reasons that the popularity of former President Obama has grown is thoroughly unrelated to the man or his policies. It is that those times are remembered as quiet and stable, a reflection of No Drama Obama. Joe Biden's election has been attributed in part to the popular yearning for normalcy. This ad (or something very similar) and the choice it implies should have been the fulcrum around which the Democratic message would have been framed. 

As the ad above suggests, Democrats could have benefitted from the anxiety induced in people from viewing video portraying violence and chaos. Instead, each incumbent and office seeker has struck out on his or her own with a message peculiar to that state or congressional district. The result has been a disconnected and disjointed appeal with no unifying theme, enabling the GOP to define the Democratic Party as it chooses.

It has chosen, and the Democratic Party eventually will pay for this willful failure. With considerable luck, it won't be in the next 48+ months while representative democracy is on the line.  Because of a lack of creativity or individual Democrats being narrow-minded, obsessed with their own race apart from survival of the republic, the odds aren't good.


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