See what we miss on a national holiday? While the rest of us relaxed, Donald Trump escalated a feud with Joe Biden ahead of a potential general-election face-off — or maybe in part to prevent it. Trump slammed Biden for his role in passing the 1994 crime bill, which progressives have rejected a generation later as a “mass incarceration” law aimed at African-Americans, a critical voting bloc for Democrats.
Trump aimed right for that wedge in his tweets yesterday:
Politico took notice of the argument and provided Trump a favorable fact check to boot. Can this bill be laid at the feet of Biden? You betcha, and Trump’s not the only one pointing it out:
Biden, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, did play a central role in getting the 1994 bill passed, and it has loomed over his presidential bid, with critics saying the bill generated mass incarceration that disproportionately affected minorities.
However, Biden has defended the bill and his role in passing it, and denied that it resulted in mass incarceration, though former President Bill Clinton apologized in 2015 for signing the bill into law, saying he “made the problem worse.”
Biden has already been criticized by other 2020 presidential contenders from his own party for his support of the bill, including Sen. Kamala Harris and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who called Biden’s work on the bill “a huge mistake” during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
It’s a solid issue on which to campaign, but whether it moves the needle in a general election remains to be seen. We can expect to hear a lot about it in the primaries, of course, as other Democrats attempt to demonstrate their superior wokeness over the polling frontrunner. It could be one of the few actual differences between the candidates, and Biden may end up all alone in the field on this point. After all, the bill went into effect 25 years ago, so none of the social pressures on extending sentences and forcing harsher treatment of rampant crime exist today. That makes it very easy to attack Bill Clinton’s pet project, passed to demonstrate his and Democrats’ centrist cred as they prepared for electoral disaster anyway.
Trump has a pretty good argument in the general election too, thanks to his support for sentencing reform. That won’t be enough to win the African-American vote, however, just as it didn’t have much impact on the midterms for other Republicans. The economy may be a better argument, since the economy always lives in the present rather than the past. Besides, anger over the crime bill has percolated for years among black voters and it never prevented Democrats from getting 88% of them or more every election.
Finally, it’s far from clear that this debate over a bill in 1994 will engage many other voters, or whether it should. As mentioned above, the political and law-enforcement environment in 1994 was a lot different than it is now. The need to get tough on crime and to demand consistency in sentencing was more acute and more bipartisan than the current debate allows. It’s easy to look back a generation later and claim that it was a “mistake,” as Clinton now says, as crime rates have dropped to generational lows for various reasons, one of which may very well be the 1994 crime bill. Any voters old enough to remember the reasons why both parties got behind that bill may have a very different reaction to the debate taking place now.