Democrats are seeking to pivot toward the center on crime and law enforcement in the wake of a series of defeats linked to voter concerns about the topic — most recently reflected in Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s primary election loss last month.

In a dramatic initial step, President Biden announced he’d back a GOP resolution that overturns a District of Columbia bill that loosened penalties on crimes like carjacking. The politics behind the move infuriated some House Democrats who’d already voted against the resolution. But 33 Democratic senators sided with Biden, possibly fearing Republicans would have reason to attack them as being soft on crime.

It’s not the only sign of a shift, either. Biden has put New York City Mayor Eric Adams — who won his election promising to be tough on crime and to support police — on his team’s advisory board. 

The change is likely to cause tension within the Democratic Party at large, especially with progressives who think more of an emphasis should be placed on reforming police and the judicial system’s handling of those accused and convicted of crimes. 

But moderates say it’s about time.

“What Biden is doing is he’s speaking for not just the majority of people but the majority of Democrats in a lot of places that are affected by crime including DC,” said Jim Kessler, the executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist-left think tank.

Reaction to voters and to crime

According to a Reuters/Ipsos survey released last week, crime and corruption ranked as the second most important issue to respondents, behind the economy.

And while Democrats largely overperformed in last year’s midterm elections despite GOP attacks on crime, the issue did prove to be effective in some parts of the country, like New York, where the party picked up three House seats.

“I think a lot of Democrats are relieved to see a stronger position on crime,” Kessler said, referring to the Senate’s vote on DC’s crime legislation. “In elections, you need to look at that past and then you need to look at the tea leaves of the future, and we’re seeing in local races the defund-type candidates and policies taking a drubbing.” 

In 2020, when calls to defund police departments reached a fever pitch following the coverage of a number of police killings of unarmed Black individuals including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden called for police reform but distanced himself against defunding the police. 

He has echoed that stance in his presidency. During his State of the Union address last month, he voiced support for law enforcement but condemned the death of Tyre Nichols, an unarmed Black man who died in police custody earlier this year. 

“You can still want a strong position on crime and want police reform. You can hold those two positions simultaneously,” Kessler said.

‘Playing politics’

But progressives call the DC crime legislation move a hypocritical effort to appease right-wing attacks on crime. 

“What’s happened now is they now want to pivot towards going after all of the reforms put in place in the post George Floyd era. They want to go after some of these police reforms that the city put in place,” said Sawyer Hackett, a progressive Democratic strategist. “Once you steer down that road with Republicans, once you start to play that game with them, you’re on a dangerous track and you’re playing politics on their footing.” 

And Republicans have already ramped up crime rhetoric going into 2024. On Wednesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee unleashed a paid digital ad campaign targeting 15 House Democrats who voted against the resolution to block the DC crime bill. 

Other Democrats argue that lawmakers will ultimately have to determine their stance on crime based on their own states, districts and precincts. Many of the 33 Democrats who sided with Biden and the GOP on blocking the crime legislation are facing tough reelection bids, including Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D) and Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey (D). 

Biden, who is expected to announce his reelection bid in the coming months, also stands to be in for a tough race next year. 

“Joe Biden has a whole lot more constituents than anybody else who may be complaining right now, so he sees things through a different lens,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist and a senior visiting fellow at Third Way. 

Crime rhetoric rolls down ballot

Democrats further down the ballot also say they are feeling pressure to respond to Republican attacks on the issue as well. 

“When we heard the issue of defunding and how often it was being used, we literally were scratching our heads going, where the hell are they getting this from?” said Adrian Garcia, the county commissioner for Harris County, Texas’s second precinct. 

Garcia’s Republican challenger, Jack Morman, rolled out an ad during the campaign last year accusing Garcia of defunding the police and tying him to “out of control” violent crime. 

“We ultimately sat down and put pencil to paper and mapped out every investment we were making, and we were challenging everyone to contradict it,” Garcia said, referring to his campaign’s response to the attack. 

Garcia ended up defeating Morman by roughly 5 percentage points. 

“In spite of a well-funded, well-organized, all-in campaign in this last cycle, they didn’t make any progress,” Garcia said. “But it was precisely because we were able to educate the public about what we were doing.”

Will Dems agree to disagree?

But the divide between centrists and progressives on the issue could widen a rift within the party. And no matter their stance, Democrats may be characterized in the same way.

“They’re going to call you open borders no matter what you do on immigration,” Hackett said. “And it doesn’t matter how many people you deport or how many people you’re cruel to or how many of Trump’s policies you’re keeping in place, Fox News and the right-wing media are going to call you an open borders president regardless. On crime, I think it’s the same story.” 

Other Democrats acknowledge the disagreement but warn against the divide turning into a larger image problem ahead of next year.

“It’s OK for us to not always agree with our leaders but understand that we have more disagreements with the other side than we do with those within our own party,” Seawright said. “That is where we can’t keep our eye off the ball.”