The Issue is Law and Order
Six months or a year ago, an observer might have thought that this presidential campaign would be waged over impeachment, or Iran, or the coronavirus, or maybe China. Instead, we’re having an election over rioting, violence—and law and order. On August 25, CNN’s Don Lemon said of the riot issue, “It is the only thing right now that is sticking.”
We’ve had elections like this before: Back in 1968, when the country seemed aflame with the combination of violence in cities and radicalism on campuses— and when Democrats seemed soft, even complicit, in the lawlessness—the Republican candidate for president, Richard Nixon, ran a strong law-and-order TV ad, reminding viewers of the madness, and ending with the tagline, “Vote Like Your Whole World Depended On It.” Nixon won.
Now today, in 2020, as the country is once again under siege, Republicans are back on the law-and-order issue with a powerful video, which, if anything, exceeds the intensity of that earlier ad. Its tagline, “Violent Radicals Have Taken Over Cities . . . Joe Biden and Democrats Are Letting Them.”
In the meantime, the polls show that the race is narrowing. Yes, Joe Biden is still ahead, but an Emerson College poll, released on August 31, showed Biden ahead of Trump by just two points—and that might not be good enough for Biden to win. We might recall that four years ago, Hillary Clinton led in the popular voting by 2.1 points, and yet still lost in the all-important electoral college.
So Democrats are definitely rattled. Team Biden had been hoping to campaign out of a basement in Wilmington, sticking to anodyne statements about “the soul of America,” and perhaps even skipping the three scheduled presidential debates. Yet now, none of that seems possible. Instead, Biden is going to do what Donald Trump is doing—get out and hit the hustings.
Indeed, there’s been a seismic shift of the very ground on which this campaign is being waged. That was the gist of the lead headline in Politico on the morning of August 31: “Biden forced to play on Trump’s turf.” The point of the article was that the shift to the law-and-order issue—who’s going to be tougher on rioting and violence—has thrown Biden on the defensive, and so now he would have to wade outside of his comfort zone, psychologically and physically, talking about an issue that makes Democrats uncomfortable: crime.
The Politico article quoted a local political figure in the burnt-over city of Kenosha, Wisconsin, saying, “Biden needed to be here already. Democrats largely are not even part of the conversation here.” That individual is one Terrance Warthen, a onetime Bernie Sanders supporter, who vented about the weak local and state leadership, notably Wisconsin’s governor, Tony Evers, in the wake of the shooting of Jacob Blake and the subsequent arson and looting. “The play is for Wisconsin. We are a swing county in a swing state. Trump just won it. Flat out.” Warthen added: “The local government looked inept. The state government looked inept. And right or wrong, [Trump] gets to play the strongman.”
To be sure, Warthen’s is just one voice, and yet Democrats know that if Trump is looking, to some, like the strong man, then maybe Biden is looking like the weak man.
For his part, Trump has been blazing away mightily; as he said in New Hampshire on the 28th, “Democrats have no complaint about the rioters and the vandals, marauding through our cities.” And on the 31st, the very day of that Politico story, Trump kept firing; as he tweeted on August 31, “Portland is a mess, and it has been for many years. If this joke of a mayor doesn’t clean it up, we will go in and do it for them!”
The Democrats’ Three-Month Reverie
So how did this happen? How did the Democrats get behind the eight ball on the gut issue of safety? The answer tells us a lot about how the Democratic Party has changed over the last quarter-century.
We might recall that back in 1992, Bill Clinton won the White House in large part because he took a tough line on crime; indeed, in his famous “Sister Souljah” speech, he delivered a strong message against violence while Jesse Jackson sat, steaming, in the audience.
And just two years later, in 1994, Biden, then the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, quarterbacked the enactment of a crime bill with teeth; as he said at the time, the bill included “60 new death penalties . . . 70 enhanced penalties . . . 100,000 cops . . . 125,000 new state prison cells.” Some called it a plan for “mass incarceration”; others called it a plan for reducing crime. Both outcomes happened—and Biden was re-elected comfortably in 1996.
Yet these days, the Democrats are mostly “woke,” and so Biden, back in January 2019, at the beginning of his third presidential campaign, had to apologize for his legislation—and it’s quite possible that he wouldn’t have won the nomination if he hadn’t so apologized.
So when the country exploded in protests, violence, and looting in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd, the Democrats were seeing events through their woke lens. On May 31, Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted, “The looting of America has been going on for over 40 years—and the culprits are the ultra-rich.” It was that sort of attitude—ignore the violence and the harm, blame Ronald Reagan and tax cuts—that convinced much of the public that the Democrats were reverting back to their old ways on crime, soft and complicit. In other words, it wasn’t just Sanders; many top Democrats were part of the problem.
For instance, on June 1, Kamala Harris, soon to be named as Biden’s running mate, tweeted her support for the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a euphemistically named group determined to bail out accused criminals, a lot of them really bad dudes. (At the same time, at least 13 Biden campaign staffers chose to donate money to the same outfit.) And oh yes, on June 18, Harris appeared on Stephen Colbert’s late-night show, saying of the increasingly violent protests:
They’re not going to stop before Election Day in November, and they’re not going to stop after Election Day. Everyone should take note of that on both levels, that they’re not going to let up and they should not and we should not.
We might pause over her words, which make plain Harris’ worldview: This should go on forever. That sort of radical attitude might have raised her standing with the woken, and yet as we’re seeing now, it doesn’t help with workers, nor with swing voters.
Yet for three months, from May to August, Democrats seemed to live in their own happy-lefty bubble, in which the big question was: Just how guilty is America?
And on this score, the Democrats’ good friends in the Main Stream Media were not helpful, because progressives were egging on progressives to be . . . even more progressive.
Indeed, in June, lefties on Twitter succeeded in purging a Democratic data analyst, David Shor, who had pointed out that in U.S. political history, rioting has hurt the Democrats. Shor was absolutely correct, of course, and yet he was politically incorrect. After Shor’s cancellation what nerd or operative was going to be brave enough to tell the Democrats what they don’t want to hear?
In the meantime, the MSM’s constant assurances that the riots were “mostly peaceful” were repeated so often that they became a running joke—albeit not to the wokerati. Instead, wokesters listened to the likes of NPR, which on August 27 offered an admiring take on a new book brazenly entitled, In Defense of Looting.
Yes, these were the thoughts filling up Democratic ears, and heads. So it was little wonder that violence was increasing. Indeed, “non-political” crime was surging, too; shootings in New York City, for instance, have more than doubled in the last year.
To be sure, Democrats did, from time to time, say something supportive about the rule of law, and yet tough-minded independent journalist Michael Tracey, who has extensively chronicled the devastation, dismissed such studied namby-pambyism when he tweeted:
Occasional vague denunciations of “violence” are widely viewed as unsatisfactory because huge swathes of the US political and media establishment have already spent three months deliberately obscuring the most widespread riots in the US in at least 50 years.
In the meantime, rioting in Portland became a nightly occurrence, as Mayor Ted Wheeler proved himself to be indulgent, even supportive, of the rioters. And yet, curiously, the street thugs still hate Wheeler, because he won’t go all the way and endorse “defunding the police.”
Meanwhile, the costs of rampant criminality began to escalate. In the caustic words of the Heritage Foundation’s James Jay Carafano:
Portland, Seattle, Chicago, and other cities where violence has spiraled out of control share one common liability: political leadership that has utterly failed to address public safety. In every case, they have turned a blind eye toward criminal behavior, creating permissive environments that only encourage ever more extreme protests and violence. In every case, they have hamstrung local police and adjured cooperation with state and federal enforcement. This is a recipe for disaster. Organized crime of all kinds thrives when it can exploit weak enforcement and gaps between local, state, and federal law enforcement.
Then Kenosha joined the litany of afflicted cities, and a few worried liberals started to speak up. Under the blunt headline, “This Is How Biden Loses,” The Atlantic’s George Packer warned, “Kenosha has placed Democrats in a trap. They’ve embraced the protests and the causes that drive them.” Packer added that the MSM’s adoration had proven to be perversely unhelpful to Democrats, because it had blinded them to the larger political reality:
With some exceptions, the media have been reluctant to shine a bright light on the summer’s violence—both the riots and the concurrent spike in violence. The New York Times ignored or downplayed the subject for weeks.
Packer added, “Here is a prediction about the November election: If Donald Trump wins, in a trustworthy vote, what’s happening this week in Kenosha, Wisconsin, will be one reason. Maybe the reason.”
In addition, Bill Maher said of the Democrats, on his HBO show, “They seem to be hesitant in some ways, for example, to condemn the looting.” To which one of Maher’s guests, Never Trumper Rick Wilson, responded that the Democrats “needed to stomp down this ‘Defund the Police’ thing the millisecond it started, and they were slow.” And Willie Brown, the longtime California Democratic powerbroker, and a mentor to Kamala Harris, wrote on the 29th that “the biggest threat” to the Biden-Harris ticket is “demonstrators who are tearing up cities in the name of racial justice.”
So now Democrats were starting to worry as reality was starting to bite. On August 30, Oregon’s governor, Kate Brown, having coddled the street goons for three months, finally said that she had had enough: As a “first step,” she declared, it was time “to stop the cycle of violence.” Of course, she added the usual words about racial justice and right-wing vigilantism, and yet still, it’s impossible not to notice which item Brown put first—stopping violence. Perhaps she just remembered that she faces an election of her own in two years.
By the end of August, it was obvious that Biden would have to get off his couch and do something about the deteriorating situation. On the 31st, he flew to Pittsburgh to deliver a toughened-up message:
Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted. Violence will not bring change. It’ll only bring destruction.
We can observe that Biden’s re-conversion to law and order is decidedly one-sided. He freely mentioned “right-wing militias,” “white supremacists,” and “vigilantes,” and yet he never mentioned Antifa, or Black Lives Matter. Then, after his 12-minute speech, he flew back home, without taking questions from reporters.
Indeed, in Pittsburgh, Biden tried to play a little political jujitsu, shifting the blame to the 45th president. As he said, “The simple truth is Donald Trump failed to protect America. . . . The murder rate right now is up 26 percent across the nation this year under Donald Trump. Do you really feel safer under Donald Trump?” The implication was clear enough: It’s Trump’s fault, and so if you want it to stop, you’d better vote for me.
Yet the former vice president’s attempt to turn the tables on Trump didn’t fly with conservatives, who noted the not-so-subtle hint of extortion in his words. Mollie Hemingway, of The Federalist, snapped, “The ‘blackmail Americans into voting for me by threatening more violence unless I win’ strategy is so impossibly evil and strategically unwise.”
So now, while we wait to see how the voters react, we can already tell that the MSM is playing Biden’s speech as a huge victory, as the Delaware man punching out the Bad Orange Man. Hence this cheering headline in Axios, “1 Big Thing: Biden hits Trump on law and order,” and this header in The Washington Post: “Biden calls Trump ‘a toxic presence’ who is encouraging violence in America.”
Yet then, on September 2, the Biden campaign announced that Joe and Jill Biden, too, would be visiting Kenosha. So we can see: In the most literal sense, Biden is now playing on Trump’s turf. As The Washington Post headlined it, “Biden adjusts strategy in Midwestern battlegrounds to blunt Trump’s ‘law and order’ focus.” In other words, Trump has Biden reacting. In fact, even before Biden arrived in Kenosha, the White House dismissed the trip as “too little, too late.” And when Biden arrived in Kenosha, he met with the family of Jacob Blake, including Blake’s father, who is accused of posting blatantly racist and anti-Semitic jibes on social media. And then a town hall in a church went embarrassingly off-message when one women refused to read her prepared script. And oh yes, the usual Bidenesque verbal oddities, such as his assertion, “A black man invented the light bulb, not a white guy named Tom Edison.” (A black man was involved in the early design of light bulbs, but as Breitbart News’ Penny Starr explains, his patent came two years after Edison’s.)
In the meantime, in the comfort of his home town of Wilmington, Biden flatly declared that the police officers who shot Jacob Blake and Breonna Taylor–a woman shot and killed in Louisville, KY, in March–“need to be charged.” That’s not how our system is supposed to work; district attorneys should make those decisions, not politicians. Indeed, it would seem that Biden is once again veering into the wokey attitude of blame-the-police first, which is probably not a good idea, in terms of the November election. That is, if Biden forces the public to make a choice between the police and Black Lives Matter, he’ll be sorry.
Thus the 2020 battle, on the field of law vs. crime, is joined. On September 1, Trump visited Kenosha; Breitbart News’ headline was about as factual as can be: “Donald Trump Visits Burned-Out Business in Kenosha, Wisconsin.” And yet the MSM saw the trip differently; Politico snapped back with this nastygram of a header: “Trump Claims He Saved Kenosha. Wisconsin Voters Aren’t Buying It.”
The question is whether Trump can stay on the offensive on the crime issue, even as the MSM rallies around Biden. To keep going, the 45th president might point out, as helpfully suggested by national-conservative journalist Ryan James Gidursky, that Biden supports ending cash bail for criminal suspects. That disastrous “reform” was exactly what was put in place by New York State earlier this year, with calamitous results. So now, do we want that turn-‘em-loose approach for the rest of the country?
Trump might also keep pushing on the prospect of a Biden presidency. Back in August, the president roared that the former vice president “is the puppet of left wing extremists,” and he’s repeated that charge, and similar charges, just about every day since. This is, after all, a crime election, and so he must keep reminding voters of the stakes; as Richard Nixon put it 52 years ago, Vote Like Your Whole World Depended On It.
Yet as he searches for rhetorical fresheners for his message, Trump might quote Andrew Sullivan, a more-or-less conservative who supports Biden. Yet still, on the 28th, as Sullivan considered the question of whether or not a President Biden would be tough on crime, he conceded that once in the Oval Office, Biden would cave to the criminals and the crazies:
Biden, let’s face it, is weak and a party man to his core, and has surrendered to the far left at almost every single turn— from abortion to immigration to race. You’d be a fool I think, to believe he could resist their fanaticism in office, or that if he does, he won’t be toast in a struggle to succeed him.
So that’s what a Biden supporter thinks. Now the rest of us can can wonder: If even Biden’s friends think he is weak, what should we think?