Liberals fume over Biden’s turn against home rule in decision on DC crime bill
Progressives have turned their fire toward President Biden for siding with Republicans on a District of Columbia crime bill that overturns its governing body’s legislation.
Liberal lawmakers and activists were fuming on Friday over what they see as the president’s disregard for the city’s autonomy after they say he promised not to veto a resolution that would alter the criminal code.
They argue Biden’s engaging in doublespeak — offering support for statehood on paper while also working against an elected body’s governing abilities — and are concerned that he’s jeopardizing the interests of hundreds of thousands of residents.
“This ain’t it. DC has a right to govern itself, like any other state or municipality. If the President supports DC statehood, he should govern like it,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wrote in a tweet, siding with advocates who have been encouraging Biden to use the bully pulpit to press the issue more strongly.
“Plenty of places pass laws the President may disagree with,” she continued. “He should respect the people’s gov of DC just as he does elsewhere.”
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who heads the Progressive Caucus in the House, said she was “deeply disappointed” with the position Biden abruptly announced on Thursday, offering a rare and strongly-worded public rebuke of the president.
“This is simple: The District of Columbia must be allowed to govern itself,” Jayapal wrote in a statement on behalf of the caucus. “Democrats’ commitment to home rule should apply regardless of the substance of the local legislation.”
Both House liberals’ views echo those who say the president wasn’t right to meddle in the city council’s measure when, on Thursday, Biden said he would sign off on a potential Senate vote that would theoretically cancel out the city council’s move.
Taking to Twitter, Biden tried to spell out in simple terms what many residents agree are both nuanced and politically-charged issues: statehood and, more broadly, crime. He alluded to the national aspect of the latter by mentioning “carjackings,” a term that causes a visceral reaction for some voters across the country.
“I support D.C. Statehood and home-rule — but I don’t support some of the changes D.C. Council put forward over the Mayor’s objections — such as lowering penalties for carjackings,” Biden tweeted. “If the Senate votes to overturn what D.C. Council did — I’ll sign it.”
‘Old school’ Biden
For all the outrage escalating among progressives on Capitol Hill, activists were arguably even more spirited in their opposition. For years, many had been pushing the president and fellow Democrats to go to bat against Republicans over statehood, and while the GOP House and moderates in the Democratic-controlled Senate make that an unlikely prospect, they continue to rally for it. Some reiterated the fact that Biden said he supports the issue.
“I don’t think he should insert himself here,” said Chaz Beasley (D), a former state representative from North Carolina who’s advocated for progressive issues.
“I don’t think there’s any need for any level of D.C. politician at the Capitol building or at the White House to say we’re going to step in here,” he said. “Let the D.C. voters decide.”
Biden’s decision was particularly startling to progressives who see him as making strides in other areas to adapt to the changing political climate and preferences of many in his party.
One progressive communications strategist suggested that despite the apparent evolution on other topics, the impulse to side with the GOP was reminiscent of “old school Biden,” referencing the president’s former harder-line approach to crime.
Biden has caught heat from his party’s left flank for his Senate leadership on a 1990s-era crime bill, which Democrats including Biden himself later said had problematic elements. He also made an effort to fully detach from the “defund” movement around police reform and has said explicitly that he does not support that view, putting him at times at odds with the activist side of his party.
Prominent progressives, for the most part, have backed away from much of that rhetoric, mindful not to reignite what led to a debate over down ballot losses in recent midterm cycles. And lawmakers airing frustrations were careful to make the subject more about “home rule” and statehood rather than explicitly discussing violent crime or other areas like sentencing penalties.
“I feel like people now, in DC, are a little pissed,” the progressive strategist said. “It’s anti-democratic, it really is.”
Some Democrats back Biden’s move
But while some of the most outspoken liberals in and out of Congress were quick to admonish the president, other Democrats offered quiet support of Biden’s decision.
Among Biden’s defenders, there’s a strong belief that he needs to do everything he can to fend off the GOP’s expected onslaught of crime attacks, and that appearing too tolerant or forgiving around offenses right before the 2024 campaign launch isn’t wise.
“I think the president did the right thing here,” said Douglas Wilson, a Democratic operative. “It would successfully be able to paint the president, as well as every Democrat down the ticket, as soft on crime.”
Biden is preparing to launch another White House campaign against a Republican Party eager to make it a signature issue for another cycle, and some Democrats point to recent losses within their party as signs that a stronger approach is needed.
Democrats lost House seats in the November midterms in areas of blue New York, and more recently, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, also a Democrat, lost her reelection campaign, in part, over her handling of the issue in her city.
“We have to have a balance here,” Wilson said. “We have to remember the Republicans are masterful at what I call ‘simplicity politics’. They’re able to take an issue like crime and say hey, Democrats control a majority of major cities in this country, and in those cities we have crime going up.”
“And then you’re going to have the president veto this bill? It would have destroyed us in 2024,” he said.
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