President Joe Biden and former Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who recently lost reelection amid continued crime issues in the city. (Evan Vucci/AP)

From the Center

Joe Biden picked a fight with the Democratic Party last week. If his party is smart enough to listen to him, both he and they could end up winning that fight. 

For the formative decades of Biden’s political career, candidates of either party who could credibility present themselves as “tough on crime” almost always began their campaigns with a significant advantage. Republican politicians used criminal justice and public safety issues as a cudgel to beat up their opponents, and most savvy Democrats – like a young Biden – found ways to burnish their law enforcement before facing a general election audience.

Around the turn of the century, the issue began to lose its salience with large numbers of voters. This was primarily because the crime rate had declined precipitously, and while there was heated debate about whether that drop was because of more stringent sentencing laws or broader demographic trends, the end result is that many Americans began to feel much safer and turned their attention to other matters. At the same time, a generation of Democrats began emphasizing prison reform, social justice measures and less severe sentencing and parole policies, for which they were rewarded by their base and not penalized by swing voters.

Ironically, the backlash against this less restrictive approach became more evident in the immediate aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. After the original outrage against the police officers responsible for Floyd’s death, the “defund the police” movement triggered a concern among large portions of the electorate that the pendulum had swung too far in the other direction. Very few Democratic officeholders actually supported the complete elimination of police funding, but the term also ensnared many other politicians with less absolute proposals to shift smaller amounts of money from law enforcement to social services programs.

Biden himself was emphatic throughout the 2020 election that he opposed defunding, which protected him against Donald Trump’s attacks on the issue. Since then, the criminal justice debate has only gotten louder. Democratic mayoral candidates in New York and Los Angeles won their elections after emphasizing strong criminal justice agendas. Conversely, many Democratic congressional candidates who did not forcefully contest accusations against their records on public safety matters were defeated in their elections during last year’s midterm election. And last Tuesday, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot suffered an embarrassing loss in her re-election campaign when she was eliminated before the runoff by voters exhausted with that city’s continuing violent crime issues.

Lightfoot’s defeat set off alarm bells throughout Democratic ranks and only two days after her loss, Biden announced that he would oppose a proposal by the District of Columbia City Council that would have significantly reduced penalties for several types of violent crime. Congressional Republicans had passed a measure of their own overturning the new D.C. law, and Biden had been widely expected to veto their bill to support the principle of District home rule. But the White House also recognized that several Democratic incumbents in contested congressional races next year could not afford to appear to be supporting these lessened penalties, and so Biden reluctantly told his fellow party members that he would sign the Republican-sponsored resolution.

Party progressives reacted angrily, accusing the president of forfeiting his principles for the sake of political convenience. But these are Biden’s principles, and they have been ever since he sponsored a wide-ranging anti-crime bill during Bill Clinton’s term in office. Biden’s reluctance to follow liberal Democrats on law enforcement and public safety issues was part of what made him the party’s candidate most likely to defeat Trump in 2020, and probably makes him their best opponent for Trump again next year.

Biden announced this decision only a week after his administration had laid out stringent new policies governing the treatment of foreign nationals seeking asylum in this country, a step which also infuriated his party’s base. With a Republican House majority determined to find ways to divide Democrats on cultural issues, Biden and his party will be facing similar challenges almost constantly between now and next November. Biden has never enjoyed an especially close relationship with his party’s most progressive members. His task going forward will be to find a way to keep them motivated even as they see him prioritizing the political center over their own needs.

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.

This piece was reviewed and edited by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter (Center bias).

Read more of Dan’s writing at: