From the Center

Two summers ago, in the aftermath of the tragic deaths of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor, a series of peaceful protests and less-peaceful riots gave birth to the “Defund the Police” rallying cry. Since then, Republicans have worked earnestly to affix that slogan to every Democratic candidate, and most Democrats have worked just as tirelessly to distance themselves from it.

The public safety debate moved beyond rhetoric and catchphrases last week, when the House prepared to debate a series of police funding bills that centrist Democratic members believe will be essential to their re-election campaigns. They recognize that the “defund” attacks will stick unless forcefully rebutted, and so they developed a legislative package that provided financial support to local law enforcement organizations. Speaker Nancy Pelosi appeared to have given this effort her blessing, and it was widely assumed that many of her endangered incumbents would be able to use these votes to defend against GOP attacks.

The key to Pelosi’s efforts was her willingness to move forward at the same time with a comprehensive ban on assault weapons. While such a measure has no chance of passing the Senate, almost every member of her caucus was eager to be on record in support of such a popular step before hitting the campaign trail. Although a handful of Democrats representing rural areas would not vote for the bill, the overwhelming majority strongly supported it. House leadership assumed that moving the assault weapons ban would appease progressive Democrats who were less enthusiastic about the police funding bills.

Their assumptions were wrong. As the week progressed, it became clear that serious opposition to the funding legislation had formed, and that the Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus both had serious problems with the bill. While the Black Caucus ultimately resolved most of their concerns by negotiating accountability provisions into the bills, the delay allowed progressives to marshal their resources to derail the legislation.

The additional police funding is not officially dead, but consideration has now been delayed until mid-August. So it’s possible that just as the centrists were able to fashion a mutually acceptable solution with the Black Caucus, they could construct a similar compromise with House progressives. But the combative language coming from progressive leaders last week did not seem to lend itself to a middle-ground solution and so this next challenge will be much greater.

Many of the Democrats’ most vulnerable candidates would benefit greatly from the ability to tout a police funding package to the swing voters who will decide their re-election campaign. But party liberals argue that passage would demotivate the Democratic base and would discourage the turnout necessary to prevail in a lower-visibility 2022 midterm election.

Candidate Joe Biden was emphatic in his support for law enforcement in 2020 and has continued to demonstrate that commitment throughout his time in office – sometimes to the consternation of his party’s base. Pelosi clearly believes that this is the right path for her members to take as they work to maintain their paper-thin majority and has publicly indicated her support for the funding legislation.

Still, convincing progressives to move on this could be a heavy lift. The potential passage of a climate and health care bill in the Senate and the motivational potential of the Roe vs Wade overturn for pro-choice voters could make a tough-on-crime bill easier to swallow. But it will test all of Pelosi’s leadership skills to fashion a police funding bill that her caucuses are willing to accept.

All of this takes place on a political landscape where Republicans are heavily favored to regain control of the House in November, so it’s possible that the outcome of this debate may have more to do with the size of the GOP majority rather than whether Democrats can maintain their excruciatingly slim margin. But while crime and public safety issues don’t rank as high in voter priorities as inflation and abortion, there’s no question that attitudes toward law enforcement will continue to be a key part of Republican messaging throughout the fall.

The question now is whether – and how – the Democrats defend themselves in the face of these attacks. Large portions of the electorate are feeling vulnerable about the increase in crime in their communities and they are much more likely to give their support to a party that they trust to protect them.

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).

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