Yesterday, President Trump took to Twitter to deride Joe Biden for his work on the 1994 Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act. Trump insinuated that Biden’s support of the bill, which imposed steep sentencing guidelines and some of Biden’s presidential opponents have criticized, would keep black voters from supporting him.
It’s hard to understand the president’s exact political motivation here. Maybe he thinks the crime bill is a serious stumbling block for Biden in the primary and wants to elevate it as an issue, playing political adviser to Biden’s opponents, as it were. Maybe he thinks he can force Biden to double down on his support of the crime bill, and alienate the social justice wing of the party in a general election. Maybe he’s just stirring the pot.
Whatever he’s doing, the crime bill is not going to take Biden down. Not yet, anyway.
The reason Biden is safe on this front is generational. Basically, if you are more than 40 years old, you might think the bill was draconian, but you can remember how bad the crime crisis was in 1994. If you are younger than 40, and have no such recollection, it may very well seem like a needless and reactionary measure. Most of the electorate is older than 40. They have a context for Biden’s choice that makes it seem, even if one disagrees with it, entirely understandable.
Pollster Frank Luntz weighed in on this question in response to me on Twitter today.
In 1994, violent crime had hit a 30-year high.
A tougher approach was demanded by leaders across the board, regardless of political affiliation.
— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) May 28, 2019
And he’s right. In 1993, for example, there were more than 2,400 murders in New York City. Last year there were 289. It is impossible to explain to a 30-year-old what 1993 New York City was like — don’t get me wrong, I still loved it, and moved there — but it was often legitimately frightening. This was a pattern seen all across the country. And the voters were demanding solutions.
There is widespread disagreement about how effective the crime bill and New York City’s “broken windows” policing methods were in the staggering crime rate drop that followed their enforcement. I won’t litigate that here, except to say that whatever role they played, violent crime dropped dramatically. The important point is that whether they worked or not, people understand why they were adopted, and they had broad public and political support across demographic boundaries.
This will be Biden’s play: “It was a crisis,” “The public demanded action,” “It had broad support, including among black politicians.” For the vast majority of voters of all ages, this makes sense and makes his support of the bill into something of a nothingburger. In terms of the Democratic primary, this line of attack seems unlikely to leave much of a mark. But the general election is a different story.
If, as may have been Trump’s hope, Biden has to double down on his defense of the bill, it will anger parts of the far-left Democratic base. I think Trump is either wrong, or trying to be edgy about whom those voters are. It’s not black voters that the crime bill is likely to influence, it is white progressives, who make up the vast majority of far-left New Progressives. But this can still work in Trump’s favor. Frankly, it’s reminiscent of what happened to Hillary Clinton, who could not bring along enough Sanders voters to beat Trump.
Trump’s tweet is his most powerful direct intervention into the Democratic primary to date. It is a reality show challenge. How will each contestant deal with it? Will a desperate single-digit long shot take up the president’s critique and call Biden unfit? Or will one of them try to appeal to the center by getting Biden’s back? Bernie Sanders also voted for the bill as a member of Congress, so how does that affect the game?
One of the more telling moments of the 2016 election was when Bill Clinton, apparently against his advisors’ wishes, engaged a young Sanders supporter in a diner in New Mexico who criticized his administration. At one point, Bubba said, “If you never have to make a decision, then you can go back to the past and cherry pick everything[for a narrative] that is blatantly false.” It was an awkward moment for the Hillary Clinton campaign that wished to divorce itself to some degree from Bill’s legacy.
But what if that was a mistake by Hillary’s team? What if it was the same mistake Al Gore made? What if lots and lots of people, including Democrats who aren’t on CNN or Twitter, still believe Clinton was a good president? Then Biden might be making a very shrewd choice to defend the 1990s Democratic Party in the primary.
But for some progressives it might be a bridge too far. And that is why Trump wants this to be an issue.