What a difference a hashtag makes.
When Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had the phrase “Black Lives Matter” painted in immense letters on a city street directly adjacent to White House last week, she drew a stark line between President Trump and the protestors who had populated that space in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Bowser’s action capitalized on public opinion polls that showed strong support for the protests and equally strong disapproval for Trump’s handling of the situation. The mayor's tweet of the bright yellow letters painted on the street reinforced the political benefits that this heightened attention on race relations has brought to Democratic candidates from Joe Biden on down.
But two days later, protestors added their own three-word slogan to Bowser’s mural. This one read “Defund the Police”, illustrating the challenge that Biden and other Democrats will face in navigating this dramatically different political landscape in the months ahead. The heightened concern about racial inequality among Americans of all backgrounds tilts the playing field decisively toward the Democrats, especially as Trump continues to address these issues in a characteristically pugilistic manner. But the revitalized discussion over police reform is more complicated, and while large majorities of voters now support significant overhaul of law enforcement practices, there are loud voices on the political left calling for more sweeping changes than many centrists will find acceptable.
On Monday, Democratic congressional leaders announced a legislative package that include several police reforms measures that will likely pass without controversy, most notably those having to do with strengthened use of force standards and enhanced anti-bias and de-escalation training procedures. That’s the low-hanging fruit – no one is going to be arguing in favor of choke holds. Another achievable reform may include the institution of a national police registry that would prevent so-called “rogue cops” from moving from one department to another after just cause dismissal.
But there are also pieces that may be more divisive. In the past, mandatory body cameras have raised issues relating to privacy and civil liberties. Opponents argue that a prohibition of no-knock warrants may make it easier for drug dealers to dispose of their products while police are waiting for entry. Even more challenging will be the fight over qualified legal immunity, the protections that police officers have been given to protect them from lawsuits. Every one of these has the potential to cause great unease among key voter groups who have swung away from Trump toward Biden over the past few months.
Then there is the debate over “defunding” police departments, an idea which is not part of the Democratic congressional package but that is enjoying growing support from many party activists and elected officials. Most advocates make it clear that their goal is not to shut down police departments but rather to redirect some funding from the police to social service organizations to take on oversight of issues such as homelessness, drug abuse and other societal problems that have fallen to law enforcement over the years. But there is a sizable cohort demanding even more dramatic changes that would abolish local police departments altogether.
Biden has already rejected these proposals, as have congressional Democratic leaders. But others are less restrained. The Minneapolis City Council voted to move in this direction, and Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has said that the city’s police department should be disbanded.
But Trump is already working hard to link Biden to the more extreme voices in his party, and the president will attempt to leverage the argument over precisely what “de-funding” means to convince older voters and suburbanites that Democrats are not sufficiently committed to public safety. Biden will continue to distance himself from these more extreme proposals, but one of his greatest challenges as a candidate has been to motivate his party’s ideological base without ceding the political center. In the current climate, a prolonged discussion of race in America will help him toward both goals. But an ongoing debate regarding police reform makes that challenge more difficult.
Simply put, “Black Lives Matter” is a helpful hashtag for Biden. “Defund the Police” could be a very valuable weapon for Trump.
Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.
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