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Opinion An ugly new GOP attack line is prompting a useful rethink among Democrats

Democratic congressional candidate Melanie Stansbury of New Mexico. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
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With crime rising in U.S. cities, Republicans are confident that they can win the midterms by tying it to Democrats and the “defund the police” movement. This, in turn, has prompted a mini-battle among liberals, with some warning against complacency about both the terrible underlying policy problem and the political threat it poses.

But something has been missing from that debate: a look at the strategic response of Democrats themselves. The party is elaborating an approach that defies easy characterization, and could, if successful, defuse GOP attacks and resolve tensions inside the Democratic coalition in a constructive way.

This response demonstrated success this week, when Melanie Stansbury won a special House election in New Mexico by 25 points. Her GOP challenger sought to make the race all about crime and supposed Democratic disdain for law enforcement.

New Mexico state Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D) won the June 1 election in New Mexico’s 1st congressional district. (Video: KOAT)

“We believe that Melanie Stansbury created a template for how to respond,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told me. “Respond aggressively, and talk about what you support.”

This template is nuanced. It doesn’t constitute merely denouncing the excesses of “defund,” as some have called for. Instead, it combines a forthright declaration of the facts about what the candidate actually supports on policing with a refusal to retreat on discussing systemic racism.

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In New Mexico, the GOP candidate ran a disgusting ad blasting Stansbury’s onetime, partial support for a radical proposal to shift police funding. Yet, Stansbury outperformed 2018 and 2020 performances by former Rep. Deb Haaland, who has joined the administration.

To be clear, this is an overwhelmingly Democratic district. But observers were watching for a shift toward the Republican, a potential sign that amid rising crime and street protests, the suburban swing to Democrats might reverse. It didn’t.

How Stansbury responded

What’s noteworthy is how Stansbury rebutted these attacks. She ran her own ad featuring law enforcement denouncing the “lies” that she supports defunding police and vouching for her support for funding “tools we need to fight violent crime.”

But, importantly, when questioned by reporters, Stansbury also continued to insist on the importance of systemic racism as a societal problem, including its impact on policing, requiring reform.

Maloney, the chair of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, says this balance is the policy and political sweet spot.

“It’s absolutely essential that we continue to fight for racial justice,” Maloney told me, adding that this needn’t be diminished by the “the urgency of responding to a lie” about support for defunding the police: “You can do both.”

The key here is that Democrats must forcefully describe what they are for with conviction, but this must entail describing both their actual positions on defunding the police and their continued support for racial justice and police reform.

Maloney noted, for instance, that Democrats should not hesitate to cite House passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which would ban forms of excess police violence and make holding bad cops accountable easier.

As Maloney pointed out, saying what you are for also should entail noting support for “common-sense reforms for policing,” which “are actually broadly popular.”

Part of this involves a calculus about base turnout on both sides. Striking this balance, Maloney told me, “energizes your own supporters, dispels Republican lies and makes sense to people trying to make up their minds.”

But also, Maloney noted, the New Mexico race suggests attacks over crime don’t inspire massive GOP turnout without Donald Trump on the ballot. As he noted, if “only Trump can do that, then their playbook for 2022 ain’t that great.”

When I asked Maloney whether Democrats in highly competitive districts should employ this template, he carefully noted that every district is different, but added this will be an “effective way for Democrats to support good reforms” while taking on the “distortions of the other side.”

This analysis, Maloney says, emerged from a Democratic autopsy on 2020 House losses, which concluded that attacks on the party over defund the police, socialism and “wokeness” landed hard.

That basic truism has led to a lot of suggestions that Democrats must distance themselves from these debates, be willing to call out the left and stick to talking about popular policies.

In one sense, the New Mexico race vindicates this “popularism.” Stansbury did heavily emphasize support for President Biden’s popular covid-19 and jobs proposals.

But Democrats are also gravitating toward a nuance different from merely dodging these crime and policing debates to avoid making them “salient.” Instead, it suggests a way to engage them without aggravating intra-coalitional tensions.

The hidden Biden strategy

An under-acknowledged point is that Biden himself adopted this playbook. He embraced the protests and their underlying goals, while also clarifying that he doesn’t support defunding the police, but without any big Sister Souljah-like performance of denouncing the left.

Biden also cast Trump and right-wing extremist violence as the real public safety danger. While the protests and “defund” likely cost Biden some swing voters, it wasn’t decisive, and Biden’s approach managed not to alienate the left. Also, embracing the protests sent a good message to the country.

Obviously, Democrats must develop their own substantive arguments about the right response to rising crime. But as Brian Beutler and Ryan Cooper detail, such arguments are in formation, and they involve not dodging these issues, but instead frontally engaging with the need for police reform as a public safety imperative.

Democrats can win arguments sometimes. We saw it in New Mexico. While the road ahead will be much tougher, this approach seems far better than the alternative — for the party and the country.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Can Democrats avoid the pitfalls of 2020? A new analysis offers striking answers.

Paul Waldman: A Democratic special election win suggests GOP attacks over crime failed

Hugh Hewitt: What unites the GOP: Checking Democrats’ lurch to the left

James Hohmann: How populism could help Democrats blunt the GOP in midterms

Catherine Rampell: One of Trump’s dumbest economic policies remains in place. Time for Biden to scrap it.