Syndicated columnist Susan Estrich: Can Democrats own the crime issue?

  • Susan Estrich

    Susan Estrich

By Susan Estrich
Posted9/27/2022 1:00 AM

It is a once in a generation opportunity.

The Republicans, who have owned the crime issue in national politics since 1968, are losing it, turning themselves into pretzels to try to defend Donald Trump by attacking the FBI. If such rhetoric didn't pose real dangers for law enforcement, it might actually be an amusing spectacle.


And the Democrats, for once, have gotten their acts together, coming up with a package of bills to fund police departments that is supported both by moderate Democrats and by the Congressional Black Caucus. The bills would not only fund more police officers but would also invest in training, body cameras and accountability, as well as increasing salaries and mental health resources for police officers.

For weeks, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been promising to bring up the legislative package. President Joe Biden has been out there talking about crime; Trump is out there claiming to be above the law; and nothing from the Democrats in Congress. Why not? Reportedly, it's the old story. Votes. Democrats have the Black Caucus lined up, and the leadership, and the members in the toughest races are to a person behind the legislation. Who they don't have is a small handful of so-called progressives who complain that the package is a blank check when in fact it is not that at all. If it were a blank check, it's pretty clear which side the Congressional Black Caucus would take.

Watching the paralysis is painful, to say the least. After the George Floyd protests, Republicans -- with some help from the worst sloganeers in American politics -- managed to brand Democrats with the label of "defunding the police." This, after decades of labeling Democrats as soft on crime and using that as an excuse for draconian sentencing schemes that resulted in an explosion in the prison population, much to the satisfaction of the prison guards' lobby, although no one else. Not to mention the Willie Horton of it all -- Horton being the Black murderer who raped a white woman while out on a furlough, which qualified him, in the words of George H.W. Bush's then campaign manager, to be the "running mate" of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, Bush's opponent and my candidate.

For years -- decades, actually -- I've been told to remember Willie Horton when I tried to convince Democrats that we needed to do something positive, constructive and reasonable -- like supporting better policing -- if we care about the victims of crime, who look in terms of demographics very much like the perpetrators (disproportionately young and poor and of the same race). For years -- decades, actually -- I've been told that crime is inherently a race issue, notwithstanding the disproportionate impact on victims of color, because the Republicans made it into a race issue, see, for example, Willie Horton.

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But this year, Republicans aren't in any position to make hay on crime. This year, Republicans are against law enforcement, even when law enforcement turns out to be right about what they're looking for and where to find it. This year, Republicans are the criminals' lobby, the party that would put the rights of the lawbreaker ahead of the safety and security of law enforcement. If the Jan. 6 hearings and Trump's conduct on that day were not enough to put Republicans on the wrong side of the crime issue, their attacks on the FBI put them over the top.

In short, the crime issue is there for the taking, and the question is whether Democrats can finally move beyond the "soft on crime" and "criminals' lobby" that they have been branded with for so long.

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