The Washington Post
Biden puts reelection over principles with D.C. decision
Democratic presidents in the past have done troubling and at times truly terrible things to appease centrist White voters and win elections. President Biden shouldn’t continue that legacy — and I am becoming increasingly worried that he will.
Biden announced Thursday that he supports a provision initially pushed by congressional Republicans to block D.C.’S recent overhaul of its criminal code. This is problematic for at least three reasons. First, whatever the merits of the crime policy, it was adopted by the D.C. government in a totally appropriate process. Biden’s decision to override it completely contradicts the goals of D.C. home rule and eventual statehood, which the president claims to support.
Second, Biden also purports to support criminal justice reform. But by opposing D.C.’S provision, he is likely to embolden opponents of such reform across the country.
Third, in a tweet announcing his decision, Biden suggested that he had to step in because of changes to the criminal code including the reduced penalty for carjacking. This is very misleading. The new maximum penalty for first-degree carjacking is 18 years — down from 21. It’s not as if the D.C. Council doesn’t care about carjacking or wants to encourage it. It was disingenuous for the president to imply he cares more about crime in D.C. than the 12 (of 13) members of the council who backed these changes.
Biden taking this stance on criminal justice issues comes after the administration recently announced a series of restrictions on asylum seeking so stringent that some former Biden staffers are likening them to Donald Trump’s policies.
I think these decisions are largely about electoral politics. A big part of Biden’s 2024 strategy is to win Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin again. These states are disproportionately White and have a lot of swing voters who are moderate or conservative on issues such as immigration.
“Electoral politics trump values when it comes to access to asylum,” a Biden administration official recently told the Los Angeles Times.
But I am still not convinced these moves are good politics. Republicans are going to cast Democrats as too lenient on crime and immigration no matter what. I am skeptical these Republican attacks would be significantly more effective because Biden let the D.C. criminal code revisions go into effect or was more lenient to asylum seekers. It’s not as if he has delivered a major speech calling for open borders or defunding the police.
At the same time, voters know the Democratic Party is the one that is more supportive of immigration and making the criminal justice system less punitive. So I am also skeptical that Biden moving to the right on these issues in early 2023 in fairly subtle ways is going to help that much.
And while the electoral effects are unclear, the policy ones are obvious. Biden is embracing immigration limitations that a future President Trump or Desantis would build on. The next Republican president will try to silence critics by noting that a Democratic president did similar things.
Some people who truly deserve asylum won’t get it because of Biden’s new policies. It is hard to imagine a Republican president respecting D.C. home rule if a Democratic one won’t. It is extremely disappointing that a heavily White coalition (congressional Republicans, swing-district Democrats and Biden) is reversing the decisions of the government of heavily Black D.C.
Biden appears to be emulating his Democratic predecessors. It’s hard to definitively prove when a politician does something for electoral reasons. But the list of actions taken by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as candidates and presidents that likely were done in part to appeal to White swing voters is long and troubling: Clinton’s criticism of the rapper Sister Souljah, partly to distance himself from Jesse Jackson, the leading civil rights activist of that time; his decision to leave the campaign trail to preside over an execution in his role as Arkansas governor; his enactment as president of anticrime and anti-welfare provisions that embraced anti-black stereotypes of that era; Obama, as a senator from Illinois, criticizing the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who conducted Obama’s wedding; and Obama often ducking addressing racial issues, particularly in his first term.
I assume Clinton and Obama would argue that their actions were better than letting a Republican be elected. And that they sincerely believed in most or all of them. Biden might argue that his moves to the right will literally save democracy, because the Republican Party of today is so radical.
But if you have to override the elected local representatives of a place (D.C.) that has no representation in Congress to woo swing voters in Wisconsin, you are trying to preserve something less than an ideal democracy.
There must be ways for Biden to appeal to White swing voters that don’t involve backtracking from core principles such as asylum rights, D.C. home rule and a fair criminal justice system. His reelection is a big thing. It’s not the only thing.