In the second round of Democratic presidential debates, Joe Biden will share the stage with Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. This means double-trouble for the former vice president.
Biden’s biggest vulnerability isn’t his opposition, nearly 50 years ago, to busing school children for reasons of race. His biggest vulnerability in terms of policy is his support in the early 1990s for the stiff sentencing of criminals.
The legislation that Biden helped enact is probably the most successful government undertaking since we made it to the moon in 1969. It helped produce the massive shrinkage of the crime rate without which the current stampede to lenient sentencing would be unsustainable.
Given that stampede, though, Biden will be hard pressed to defend, to the satisfaction of contemporary Democratic voters, his support for stiff sentencing all those years ago.
Biden’s plan, it appears, is to change the subject from his past positions to the past policies of Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. Biden provided a brief preview when Harris attacked him on busing during the first debate. He responded by noting that Harris had been a prosecutor, whereas he once was a public defender.
For the modern Democratic Party, is there a stigma attached to the time-honored job of being a prosecutor? Biden seems to think so, and he may well be right.
There’s more to it, though. As a prosecutor, Harris took at least some serious anti-crime positions. She appealed a ruling that found the death penalty unconstitutional. She defended on appeal convictions prosecutors had secured. She sometimes supported police officers.
Mix all of this with some cases in which she seems not to have taken legitimate concerns of defendants seriously, and Harris becomes vulnerable to an attack from the left. Biden is probably itching to launch it.
But that still leaves Cory Booker. Far more than Harris, he has been in the forefront of the “jailbreak” movement. Biden must be prepared to attack him from the left, as well.
He is. Yesterday, Biden blasted Booker for law enforcement policies in Newark, New Jersey during Booker’s tenure as the city’s mayor. He said:
[Booker’s] police department was stopping and frisking people, mostly African American men. We took action against them; the Justice Department took action against them, held the police department accountable.
He objected to federal interference.
Imagine. A mayor complaining about the feds telling his cops how to police his city’s mean streets. We can’t have that.
There’s a common thread to the positions being demonized here. Biden, Harris, and Booker were all acting responsibly to promote public safety.
Biden, as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was tackling one of America’s biggest problems — rampant crime/unsafe streets. Booker, it seems, was trying to maintain public safety under challenging circumstances. Harris was supporting the police (at least to some extent).
They didn’t imagine that doing so would one day come back to haunt them. They didn’t imagine the modern Democratic Party.
For Democratic voters, though, the key in the upcoming debate isn’t substantive criminal justice policy. The key, I think, is whether Biden can demonstrate the toughness and smarts needed to fend off attacks and go on the offensive. As much as Democrats favor soft on crime policies, their number one concern is finding a candidate who can hang in there with Donald Trump.
Some might respond to the infighting among Biden, Harris, and Booker by asking that the popcorn be passed. Not me.
Biden or Harris might be our next president. Can we count on either to have a decent regard for public safety? Will either, once entrusted with the presidency, revert to their prior, semi-responsible self?
The answers, I think, are “no” and “probably not.”