Biden's smart political move angers progressives

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Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. He is the author of “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.


President Joe Biden gets it. Being seen as “soft on crime” is the Achilles’ heel for Democrats — and he’s not going to let them deepen that negative association, even if it angers some progressives.

John Avlon

At issue is a local Washington, DC, bill that would revise the city’s 100-year-old criminal code. There’s general agreement that the code needs fixing, but the devil is in the details of the new version — in this case, literally soft-on-crime provisions such as reduced sentences for carjackings. This is absurd at a time when homicides are up 36% year-over-year in the nation’s capital, according to police.

That was one of the reasons why Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed the bill — but she was overridden by the City Council. Because of DC’s limited home rule status, Congress reviews all legislation passed by the City Council before it becomes law. The House of Representatives rejected the city’s new criminal code in a vote last month, and the Senate is on track this week to block it.

After it became clear the legislation would be nixed, City Council Chairman Phil Mendelson tried to withdraw the criminal code revision in a letter Monday to the Senate. Mendelson said he is not sure that this step “will stop the Senate Republicans, but our position stands: The bill is not before Congress any longer.” A senior Republican aide, however, told CNN the GOP still expects a Senate vote this week to stop the legislation.

Biden had earlier surprised some Democrats by tweeting, “I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule — but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections — such as lowering penalties for carjackings. If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did — I’ll sign it.”

This response set off members of the progressive caucus, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who fired off criticism of the president’s position, saying that it violated the premise of home rule. That process complaint misses the larger point.

Biden understands that Democrats need to play offense against crime with effective policies. That was part of the lesson behind Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decisive defeat last week in which she received an anemic 17% of the vote in a crowded primary field. It’s simply not true that otherwise liberal voters are fine with civic decline that comes with laissez-faire policies on crime. Just ask former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, whom voters recalled last year.

We’ve seen Republicans run the urban-versus-rural playbook by trying to exploit rising rates of violent crime in cities. You can reject the premise by showing that high crime rates are beginning to come down in many categories, but politics is perception and defending the status quo in a time of rising crime — after decades of decline — is both politically clueless and callous to the very real victims of crime.

Being a tough-on-crime Democrat — also once known as a “Kojak Liberal” — is consistent with Biden’s beliefs going back decades. He took a lot of flak for his leadership on the much-maligned 1994 crime bill during the 2020 campaign, but that law was effective in bringing down sky-high crime rates for decades. (Yes, it was controversial, but I broke down all the data in this “Reality Check.”)

Even in the high-water mark of protests around the police murder of George Floyd, Biden refused to take the bait by backing the truly disastrous policy slogan “defund the police.” By my count, only seven House Democrats backed the policy — but that didn’t stop Republicans from trying to present it as the official position of national Democrats. That’s just more evidence of how the far left ends up unintentionally functioning as a fundraising arm of the GOP.

Now’s the time for Biden and Democrats to propose their own crime-fighting policies. In his budget, Biden is expected to propose more funding for his Safer American Plan, while highlighting the far right’s lurch away from law and order under the sway of former President Donald Trump and some of his supporters, including their calls to defund the FBI. That’s a debate worth having that can isolate the extremes while highlighting the common ground between most Americans.

Biden is right on the politics and the policy here, but Democrats do have a reason to be frustrated on purely procedural grounds. It was an unforced error for the Biden White House to say initially it was for the bill, before it was against it. That caused a lot of needless confusion.

But what happens in DC doesn’t stay in DC. It becomes a symbol of urban success or decay that members of Congress take back home to their constituents. Advocates of DC home rule and statehood should know that soft-on-crime policies enacted by the City Council of our nation’s capital are the quickest way to ensure that those goals are never achieved.

Biden understands that if Democrats want to move America’s policies in a moderately more progressive direction, they cannot do it at the expense of public safety. Because that’s the fastest path toward political backlash.