BAD OLD DAYS

Welcome to the ’90s. Crime Is Back: Will the Spike Help the GOP?

High crime is good for Republican political prospects—and, with murder rates increasing nationwide, that should have Democrats worried about 2016.

09.07.15 4:09 AM ET

From New York to Chicago, Baltimore to New Orleans, and Milwaukee to Dallas, the hydra-headed scourges of crime, murder, and mayhem have returned. And as the country hurtles toward 2016, this grim reality could prove to be a political nightmare for the Democrats. But, for the Republicans, crime represents a well-trodden pathway to power.

Let me explain. As in 1968, crime again stands to dislodge the Democrats from the White House, in the same way that in 1988 crime helped propel George H.W. Bush to Ronald Reagan’s third term.

Look around—history can repeat itself. This past week, three men gunned down police Lieutenant Joe Gliniewicz in President Obama’s adopted home state of Illinois, even as people were mourning the execution-style killing of Darren Goforth, a Harris County, Texas, sheriff’s deputy.

Yet Obama and his party appear helpless, hostages to the same demographic forces they courted, and then rode to power. Having staked their future on the volatile axis of race and income, the Democrats are now witnessing crime reemerge as a campaign issue, and they are out of touch and ill-prepared, to say the least.

While America’s law-abiding taxpaying middle class was looking at all this in horror, the best that Obama could muster was a statement that “Targeting police officers is completely unacceptable—an affront to civilized society,” and a phone call to Deputy Goforth’s widow. The president’s response felt nonchalant, lacking the urgency of now that the Justice Department poured into Ferguson.

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee was spending its time and political capital on a resolution embracing the Black Lives Matter movement. Even in the midst of the blood and the din, it was all about the base.

In what must have been a shock to the DNC, Black Lives Matter replied with a “no, thank you.” Instead, it let it be known that “True change requires real struggle, and that struggle will be in the streets and led by the people, not by a political party.” 

Translation: The summer of 2016 season may be more memorable for what happens on the streets of Cleveland and Philadelphia than inside the convention halls. The ghosts of Chicago and the 1968 Democratic Convention are once again alive, and ready to haunt.

For the Republicans, crime is quickly becoming a campaign issue. Just days ago, Senator Ted Cruz took direct aim at the White House for the latest killing spree. According to Cruz, cops are feeling the assault “from the president, from the top on down as we see … Whether it’s in Ferguson or Baltimore, the response of senior officials of the president, of the attorney general, is to vilify law enforcement.” 

Cruz is not alone in homing in on crime. Donald Trump and Jeb Bush are also sparring over who is tougher. Trump released a video which spliced together the former Florida governor’s description of some illegal immigration as an “act of love” with the mugshots of three illegal aliens who have been charged with or been convicted of murder. 

Bush then punched back by reminding the public of Trump’s past support for Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, and drug legalization. As the Bush campaign put it, “While Donald Trump was still supporting liberal, soft-on-crime politicians, Jeb Bush accumulated an eight-year record of cracking down on violent criminals as governor of Florida.”

Suddenly, the Democrats are playing defense as our cities have turned into shooting galleries. Against a blizzard of crime videos, Hillary Clinton’s exhortation in April that “we should make sure every police department in the country has body cameras to record interactions between officers on patrol and suspects,” is looking both naïve and opportunistic. 

Oh, and in case anyone forgot, it was Bill Clinton, who as president, toughened the federal anti-crime laws that have now led to “mass incarceration.” It was also Bill Clinton who left the 1992 campaign trail to preside over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector for the murder of Robert Martin, a Conway, Arkansas, police officer. Heck, it was Clinton who took Sister Souljah to task for advocating that blacks kill whites.

To be sure, crime has real sway as a campaign rallying cry. As John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, told The Daily Beast, “When crime goes up, it’s not the economic and social elites who notice first. They live in nice suburbs, gated communities, or well-guarded apartment buildings.”

Rather, according to Pitney, it’s the folks scraping by who first feel crime’s sting. “The people on the front line are the people who aren’t so well off. They live in the neighborhoods where you have to watch your step. And they’re the ones least able to bear the consequences of a burglary or robbery.” 

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Pitney is dead on. As The New York Times reported, murder is up 76 percent in Milwaukee, 60 percent in St. Louis, 56 percent in Baltimore, and 44 percent in D.C. Blue America is awash in red.

For today’s Democrats’s upstairs-downstairs coalition these are hard lessons to absorb. Polls are already showing that Clinton is getting little more than one-third of the white vote, and is in a statistical dead heat with the leading Republicans. When prospective Democratic nominee Martin O’Malley gets booed for saying that all lives matter, our nation has a problem.

Over the past half-century, crime has helped elect two Republicans as president. In 2016, crime may elect a third.