When a deer is caught in the headlights, its fully dilated pupils need time to adjust. The process takes as long as several minutes, causing them to freeze with indecision, and often resulting in them getting hit head-on.
This is a fitting analogy for the Democratic Party, whose eyes were adjusted to a midterm election focused on abortion, but who are now caught in the headlights—blinded by the issues of inflation and crime.
And there is a reason. This is not an instance of ‘perception is reality’—in this case, reality is reality. Violent Crime is dramatically higher in cities across America than before the pandemic and every day, more and more people are either personally impacted or know someone who is. Just last week a friend and former colleague of mine was punched in the face while standing on a street corner in Manhattan in broad daylight—so don’t waste your breath telling me crime is not a problem.
Public safety is responsibility No. 1 for the government, which is why people naturally turn to their elected officials to do something about it. And Democrats are in charge, so they have a responsibility to fix it.
Seeing the opening, Republicans—who themselves have offered little by way of an actual solution beyond bluster and hypocrisy—have cynically seized on the issue, working to paint Democrats as weak on crime and pointing to their position on clemency and criminal justice reforms as proof. From Pennsylvania to New Mexico and Ohio to New York, Republicans are spamming the airwaves with ads labeling Democrats as soft on crime. Ironic, given that Republicans, bought and paid for by the NRA, have largely sought to block any modicum of reasonable gun violence prevention for the last 30 years.
But the Democratic Party, spooked by criticism of the 1994 Crime Bill and tarred by the ghost of Willie Horton and the destructive and nonsensical “Defund the Police” movement and their woke allies who bragged about cutting funding for their local police departments, has all but ceded the issue of crime to Republicans. Unsure whether to go left or right, many have appeared paralyzed, attempting to duck the issue, or worse, taken up the mind-boggling strategy of using select statistics to try and convince voters that what they are seeing and feeling isn’t real.
In doing so, Democrats are inadvertently communicating that they don’t understand what’s important to their constituents or worse, are divorced from reality. It’s political and governmental malpractice.
First, people resent being told that their eyes are lying, and second, politicians work for voters, not the other way around. The people get to dictate which issues matter, and when they tell the elected officials that they put in office that they don’t feel safe, particularly in the middle of their next job interview, it is incumbent on them to act.
Voters respond to leadership, and they respond to a lack of leadership. If we are going to tamp down the impact in time for election day, Democrats must go on offense and confront the issue both governmentally and politically with an operational plan and coherent communications strategy.
Democrats can be true to their “progressive” ideology and aggressively fight crime. They are not mutually inconsistent. In fact, mainstream Democrats are better positioned to fight crime than Republicans—but they must communicate it clearly and forcefully, drawing the contrast between our solution-oriented approach and Republicans fear mongering.
A major element of crime reduction is gun control. President Biden was right to call for a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines—and two-thirds of Americans agree with him. But Democrats—eager to take credit for the bi-partisan gun bill passed earlier this year—need to acknowledge that that legislation did not get to the core of the problem and make it clear that the Republican Party is the reason why.
Republicans support providing tax breaks to their wealthy donors, while Democrats prioritize long-term sustainable solutions at the root of crime like quality public housing and funding for mental health. Democrats should hammer that point and present concrete plans to increase mental health services to get dangerously mentally ill homeless people off the street and demand the White House provide emergency funds to do it.
Democrats can support both policies that hold people accountable for quality of life offenses and community policing strategies which seek to ease the tension between police officers and the constituents they serve.
And we must support police who put their lives on the line to serve and protect while also calling out and holding fully accountable officers who abuse their position or break the law.
Finally, Democrats have to be willing to say that some people have to be behind bars to keep society safe. That is the crux of the matter. Listening to the far-left extremists, they believe no one should be in jail. This is untenable and unrealistic. We can address the root causes of crime—poverty, mental health, lack of education and a lack of opportunity—and still protect the public by incarcerating dangerous individuals. And yes, we also believe in rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration when feasible.
Democrats must articulate our position loudly and quickly. We can be tough on crime and progressive on criminal justice. In fact, responsible government must be both.
We know the car is coming—we have two weeks to get out of the road. Let’s hope it’s not already too late.