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Democrats need to come out forcefully against the bad guys.
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with new Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes. I was impressed by him overall, but I was especially taken by one of the first things he told me.
“I hate crime,” he said with conviction. “I just hate crime.”
That would be, you might say, getting back to basics. A top cop who hates crime. That’s an excellent place to start.
The number of shots-fired calls reported in the first six months of this year in Madison was 103, or four more than in the same period last year and 42 more than in 2019. Last year, 10 people were murdered here. That’s still astonishingly low for a city our size, but it was about double our average number.
Barnes’ comment reminded me of Milwaukee’s long-time mayor, John Norquist, who had a sort of intellectual bluntness. When Norquist was testing a run for governor back in the 1990’s he told the state Democratic convention that the party should talk about crime. I remember watching him in an interview after his speech. “I told them that crime is bad and we should be against it,” he said.
There you go. Crime is bad. Let’s be against it.
If you think this is simple you don’t know the hard-left in the Democratic Party. As columnist Peggy Noonan wrote recently, “(To the Democratic left) rising crime is simply more evidence that if we don’t focus on root causes—poverty, racism—crime will continue to rise. Rising crime is proof that inequity brings violence.”
She goes on to quote New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at a town hall last July, when the crime uptick had begun: “Do we think this has to do with the fact that there’s record unemployment in the United States right now?” People are “economically desperate.” “Maybe this has to do with the fact that people aren’t paying their rent and are scared to pay their rent and so they go out and they need to feed their child and they don’t have money so . . . they feel like they either need to shoplift some bread or go hungry.”
And to bring it closer to home, here’s what Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said right after looters trashed State Street last summer. “If you are angry about property damage, be more angry about the unjustified deaths of black people. Property can be repaired, but we can’t bring people back to life.”
She may have intended something else, but the clear message the mayor sent to voters was that looting, vandalism and arson were okay as long as they were committed in the cause of social justice. This, folks, is not a winning message.
I’m worried about this because I think that the Biden administration has done so many smart things, and has already done so much good for the middle class, that I badly want Democrats to defy the odds and keep control of Congress next year. By pushing the right policies, emphasizing the right issues, and talking about it all in the proper way, that’s possible.
But crime is a big issue and the Democrats, thanks to folks like AOC and Rhodes-Conway, are on the wrong side of it in the eyes of too many voters. But even moderate Democrats are afraid that if they talk tough (or even just display a sense of urgency) about crime, they’ll be accused of being racists.
Now, one could say that, to the hard-left, everybody is a racist (in fact, Barnes told me that he’s been called a racist) and so it’s not worth worrying about. But I used to be a pol and so I know what it’s like. It’s the activists in the party who make the most noise and so they can feel like the majority.
Actually, polls show that Black and Hispanic voters are more concerned about crime and more against defunding the police than white liberals. That makes sense when you think about it because affluent white liberals live in neighborhoods that don’t see much crime of any kind and see no violent crime at all. To them crime is a complex social problem that they read about in the Atlantic and Harpers and the New York Times. To too many Black people, crime is something they live with in their neighborhoods every day.
So, what should the Dems do? Well, for starters let’s declare a moratorium on talk of “defunding the police” or “attacking the root causes of crime.” Instead, demonstrate a sense of urgency. Show that you understand how serious this is and that you have no time for the guys with the guns. Say bluntly that your goal is to get the bad guys off the streets.
Look, I agree that there are too damn many guns out there and that they are too easy to get. I agree that crime is linked to poverty. I agree that we lock up too many people and that prisons can be crime schools.
I also think that we have too many broken families that don’t provide enough moral direction, but here I’m starting to cross a line with the woke left. To them, absolutely everything is about race. Racism explains 100% of every problem. But I don’t think it does. There is room for family and personal responsibility in the equation, at least in the minds of the vast majority of average voters, most definitely including voters of color.
The Democrats can do well in the next election and I want them to. But crime and wokeness are their weak points. They need to shore them up by speaking directly, and with urgency, to the problems.