William P. Barr will almost certainly be confirmed as attorney general, unless an unexpected and explosive revelation comes to light. Nevertheless, two Democratic freshmen senators, both possible presidential candidates, did an effective job illustrating that what Barr knows about the criminal-justice system is wrong and out-of-date in serious respects.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) looked incredulous as Barr demonstrated his obliviousness to the problems of mass incarceration, the damage wrought by the war on drugs and other discriminatory practices in the justice system that impact nonwhites disproportionately:
Barr seems strikingly unaware of the huge body of research and the shift in public opinion regarding the so-called war on drugs. Barr has the perspective of an older white man who worked in law enforcement in the 1990s; in a somewhat gentle fashion, Booker is telling him he’s got a lot to learn and that what Barr thinks he knows, he doesn’t. Barr’s later declaration that, overall, the criminal-justice system treats blacks and whites fairly is belied by a raft of evidence. Do he and the administration offer poor policy solutions because they are ignorant, or because they don’t wish to see what has changed? Either way, the portrait here is of someone qualified by years of experience but lacking relevant current insights into the country.
Like Booker, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) pressed Barr on several topics. (Unsuccessfully, she tried to pin him down on the situation in which he would disagree with the ethics recommendation of Justice Department lawyers. He replied brusquely, “When I disagree.”)
Harris went after Barr’s statement that a wall is needed to help fight drug trafficking. She pointed out that most illegal drugs (the ratio is actually around 90 percent) come through legal ports of entry such as airports. When was the last time Barr was at a port of entry? When he was attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration, he offered lamely. Again, bad policy from this administration seems to rest on a distorted if not wholly inaccurate understanding of real-world conditions.
Harris did extract a key concession from him on marijuana enforcement. “To the extent that people are complying with the state laws, distribution and production and so forth, we’re not going to go after that.” As Harris patiently tried to explain that the war on drugs was a huge failure in many respects and devastating for nonwhites, Barr once again looked surprised, but mostly he looked old and out of it.
The two senators' questioning of Barr showed the huge divide between the parties these days. The older, mostly white and mostly male GOP seems stuck in a time warp, bent on, among other things, fighting a crime wave that started petering out decades ago. They have little understanding of the experiences of nonwhites in the criminal-justice system. Booker and Harris, more aggressive than some of their fellow committee members, truly represent a different generation and perspective.
As they consider the contenders for 2020, Democrats should keep the generational gap in mind. President Trump really has no idea how regular people, especially nonwhites, live; his record of racism speaks for itself, and he has lived in a millionaire-billionaire bubble for 70-plus years. The candidate who goes up against him, if Democrats are savvy, should be able to accurately characterize Trump as clueless and lacking empathy and intellectual curiosity. They might want to think twice before picking someone of Trump’s generation and a white male to boot.