Biden’s About-Face on DC Crime Bill Shows Democrats on Defensive

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(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden’s sudden reversal on a rewrite of the criminal laws in the nation’s capital is an early sign that he — and his Democratic party — are accepting the uncomfortable reality that crime will be a big issue in the 2024 election cycle.

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Concerns about crime are spiking around the country — including in the cities that are strongholds for Democrats and calls for police reform — creating a tightrope for Biden to walk.

On Thursday, that delicate balance pushed the president to lean to the right. He told Democrats in a closed-door meeting that he would sign a Republican-led resolution to overturn a District of Columbia law that proponents say would modernize the city’s byzantine criminal code. Critics said the law would reduce sentences for crimes like carjacking even as police report that the crime is spiking.

Just a month ago, the Biden administration said the measure was an affront to the district’s home rule powers, leaving progressives within his own party shocked by Biden’s capitulation.

“This ain’t it,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said on Twitter.

But the fact that the city’s resolution will even get to his desk shows Biden isn’t alone among Democrats concerned by the political liability of crime.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot lost a re-election bid this week and her police chief resigned amid voter anger over the issue. At least three Democratic senators — Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania — are expected to vote for the measure next week. They join 31 House Democrats who supported the bill, most from competitive districts.

Republicans who campaigned on crime last year — especially in New York state — gave the GOP some upset wins despite widely underperforming expectations. Among the beneficiaries: Representative George Santos, the now-embattled congressman facing an ethics investigation for a series of lies about his background who campaigned on a theme of “backing the blue.”

John McLaughlin, a GOP strategist, said voting for the new measure “saved the Democrats some more damage, but they have a long way to go to stem the crime wave in many cities, counties and states.”

But Insha Rahman, vice president of the Vera Institute for Justice, a criminal justice reform group, said Biden and the Democrats risk of learning the wrong lessons from last year’s elections.

“The mistake that Democrats make is to give in to the lizard-brain instinct that President Biden reverted to yesterday, to double down on ‘tough on crime,’ and make their rhetoric indistinguishable from Republicans,” she said.

Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman won his US Senate race despite a barrage of crime ads from Republican Mehmet Oz last year by addressing the issue head-on and not apologizing for sentencing reform.

“It’s remarkable how much owning the issue, not being silent on it, and reminding people that we don’t have to choose between safety and justice can make a difference,” Rahman said.

Biden’s complicated history with the crime issue goes back at least to 1994, when he sponsored the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act — a tough-on-crime measure that critics say resulted in a generation of mass incarceration for relatively low-level offenses.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, laying the groundwork for a likely bid for the Republican presidential nomination, has signaled that he intends to keep the crime issue front-and-center in 2024. In a series of appearances in the suburbs of New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, DeSantis lambasted what he called “woke approaches to crime” like cashless bail and defunding the police.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, responding to Lightfoot’s defeat this week, insisted that the president has “walked the walk” on policing and won’t take a back seat to Republicans on the issue.

Biden’s approval rating stood at 42% in an Economist/YouGov poll last week, but approval of his handling of crime was at just 32%. For women, independents, and suburban and rural voters, his approval on crime was less than 30%.

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