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Democrats look to flip script on GOP 'defund the police' attacks

The Hill logo The Hill 7/15/2021 Tal Axelrod
a person holding a baseball bat: Democrats look to flip script on GOP 'defund the police' attacks © The Hill Democrats look to flip script on GOP 'defund the police' attacks

Democrats are seeking ways to flip the script on Republican attacks on the "defund the police" mantra, going on offense ahead of the midterm elections on an issue that some in the party concede hurt them in House races in 2020.

The party is discussing ways to turn the attacks around, including by highlighting GOP opposition to President Biden's coronavirus relief package earlier this year - including funds that state and local governments could opt to use for local law enforcement - and Republicans' response to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

The strategy is just getting off the ground, and the attacks have yet to be widely publicized in ad campaigns and other tactics as issues like the economy, the coronavirus pandemic and infrastructure remain priorities. But Democrats see the effort as key to repelling GOP criticism related to law enforcement and crime heading into the 2022 races.

"The way Republicans are forecasting they're going to drive the attack against Democrats, this will be part of it, if not most of it," said Democratic pollster Molly Murphy, referencing crime and policing.

"I think what you're seeing right now is that they're not willing to allow the Republican framework to hold, and that they're not only willing to play strong defense but are proactively trying to look for ways to get on the offense."

Beyond votes against the relief package and its $350 billion provision, Democrats also forecasted specific attacks on the 21 "no" votes from Republicans on awarding officers Congressional Gold Medals after the insurrection, comments from lawmakers comparing the riot to a "normal tourist visit" and other proposals to boost funding for the U.S. Capitol Police that they say are insufficient.

"The issue exposes one of those fatal character flaws for Republicans, which is that voters see them as phony, that they are more of a performative party, concerned about what looks good in right-wing media than what is right," said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson. "They claim to back the blue and have been hoping that voters wouldn't notice when they vote against giving them the green."

A senior House aide predicted that the attack lines would show up in ads against Republicans and statements from prominent Democrats. White House senior adviser Cedric Richmond and White House press secretary Jen Psaki foreshadowed the upcoming offensive recently with comments from their own high-profile perches.

"Republicans are very good at staying on talking points of who says 'defund the police,' but the truth is, they defunded the police," Richmond said late last month on Fox News.

Operatives say Democrats could also force more votes on legislation that Republicans broadly oppose but include provisions for law enforcement.

"I think one of the more effective things that the Democrats can do is force Republicans to vote on bills that express the hypocrisy of their position, and then make sure that the electorate is keenly aware of that legislation, and that it's also done in conjunction with support from law enforcement officials and organizations," said Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi.

The strategy marks a stark reversal from 2020, when Democrats were caught flat-footed by Republican attacks painting every party member as a supporter of cutting police budgets.

Democrats lost over a dozen House seats last year when they were expected to expand their majority. The defeats fueled recriminations from moderate members that the support by a handful of progressives for diverting funds from police put the party at a disadvantage.

"It was far from a massive driver of the vote and far from a sweeping issue in the election, but in a battle of inches, it certainly held us back a couple of feet," Ferguson said.

Democrats admit they were slow to formulate a response to the GOP broadsides.


Video: Republicans unite to defund a specific type of police (MSNBC)

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Arguments that Republicans were targeting Democrats who had never supported defunding the police failed to resonate with voters in 2020, but operatives are confident that the new line of attack will reverse the party's fortunes.

"It has taken us time as a party to grow confident in how we want to respond to these attacks," said the top House aide. "The fact that Democrats can go confidently state, 'I voted to keep police on the force when my opponent did not,' is something that we think is going to make a world of difference."

The new messaging has already produced pushback both from the media and Republicans.

The Washington Post issued a fact-check on Richmond's claim that Republicans "defunded the police," noting that the relief package's $350 billion provision says merely that states could choose to send money to police - not that it's mandated to be disbursed that way. The Post awarded three "Pinocchios" to the statement.

The Post did note, however, that Republicans had supported cuts to the Community Oriented Policing Services Hiring Program, which provides money for local police departments to increase hiring.

Republicans seized on the fact-check, suggesting that Democrats are acting in bad faith.

"Fact checkers have repeatedly debunked Democrat lies about defunding the police. It is an insult to American small businesses, families, and communities who are experiencing rising violent crime, the devastating effects of anti-police rhetoric, and police department budget cuts at the hands of Democrat politicians," said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Emma Vaughn.

"The Republican Party has always prioritized public safety, and conservatives at the federal, state, and local levels are committed to keeping our communities safe and police departments funded."

Republicans have also pointed to Democratic-led cities like Los Angeles, New York and Oakland that are providing more funds for police this year after cutting some money in 2020 amid a national upheaval over police use of force, reversals critics say are fueled by concerns over crime.

"They're realizing they have a problem," said one GOP strategist. "If [Biden] was truly honest and truly wanted to do something about crime, he'd call up these Democrat cities that are defunding the police on a regular basis."

It is precisely that kinds of messaging some Democrats fear could undercut their own offensive.

Progressives have shown no indications of letting up on advocating for strong police reform, including Kentucky activist Attica Scott, who highlighted the issue in her launch video of her primary campaign against Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). And some city lawmakers continue to advocate for cutting police budgets - trends operatives say muddle the new messaging.

The party sees a possible way to offset GOP broadsides by clinching a bipartisan deal on police reform after months of talks in the Senate, but negotiations keep hitting snags, depriving Democrats of another line of defense.

"It really is a war of messaging attrition," Amandi said. "The Democrats have to almost be perfectly disciplined and perfectly in lockstep so that the message penetrates the bad faith efforts by the Republicans to paint them as the party of 'defund the police' and being soft on crime."

To be sure, the attacks on Republicans will likely play second fiddle to messaging on the economy and the coronavirus. But Democrats say they will maintain their offense on policing as Republicans continue their barbs.

"Our economic agenda and the economic progress you've made under Biden is our first, second and third message," the House aide said. "That being said, Republicans have made it clear that their No. 1 argument is going to be policing. And I think what you're seeing right now is Democrats start being more aggressive in this space."

The new tactic also comes at a crucial time in the party's formulation of a midterm strategy.

Polls have shown that crime is an increasingly prominent concern among Americans as violence rises in cities across the country, forcing both parties to craft messaging on the issue.

And on top of that, Democrats are testing possible attack lines against the GOP now that former President Trump is out of office, taking a top boogeyman off the ticket.

"We held the House in 2020 because ultimately, for voters, Republicans' failings on COVID and, frankly, too much fealty to Trump," Murphy said.

"Now, absent those things, which were clearly Democrats' strengths and allowed us to win in 2020 ... I think we will need to figure out what that new narrative is, and I think not allowing one to get away from us, which is crime and defund, is going to be pretty imperative."

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