October 17, 2022 - 7:00am

With the midterms less than a month away, Republicans have begun hammering Democrats for their positions on crime and public safety. The specifics of the attack ads vary, but they typically involve grainy black-and-white footage, ominous music, and claims that Democrat X wants to defund the police or set criminals free. Whatever the particulars, the general takeaway from these ads is always the same: Democrats are soft on crime and don’t support police.    

Although many of these attacks are unfair — supporting parole for prisoners, for instance, is more nuanced than simply “freeing convicted murderers,” as one ad put it — they are nevertheless having their desired effect. In key Senate and House races, polling shows that the focus on crime by Republicans has had a tangible impact on voters, potentially enough to swing the outcome of a few races. Ultimately, it seems, voters find it convincing that Democrats are anti-police and that they don’t have a realistic agenda to address rising crime.

That voters are buying this shouldn’t be a surprise, given the way that the Left has talked about crime and law enforcement for much of the last two and a half years. The dominant message has been some combination of: ‘actually, crime data isn’t as bad as it seems, so stop all the hand-wringing; in reality, concern about crime is just thinly veiled “class anxiety” or “racist dog whistles”; rather than focus on locking people up, let’s focus on “root causes” of crime like guns; and abolish the police!’

But the terrible reality is that violent crime was rising at a devastating pace throughout 2020 and 2021, as Democrats were whistling past the graveyard. Noticeably absent from the Left was a recognition of the rise in violence, an acknowledgment of the havoc it was wreaking on families and neighbourhoods, or an indication that they had a practical plan to address it. The disconnect between the Democratic response and the reality of rising crime gave Republicans a foothold on the issue, which they are now shrewdly using in their midterm pitch to voters.

Perhaps the feeble Democratic response was inevitable once the Left declared any discussion of crime to be a bigoted Republican talking point. But, because they ignored the problem for so long, they risk being punished by voters next month. This is why Democrats are now scrambling to tell voters that they are, in fact, the tough-on-crime party. In addition, they no longer want to defund the police, and actually would like to increase police budgets.

Unfortunately for Democrats, crime isn’t the only problem that they are clumsily trying to address at the eleventh hour. For much of 2020 and 2021, it was effectively forbidden to discuss inflation in Democratic circles. With this taboo in place, the party failed to craft effective policy or campaign messaging to address the problem. Now, at the last minute, they’re racing to backtrack and convince midterm voters that they are the party of fiscal responsibility and are working hard to fix inflation.

It remains to be seen if these last-minute Hail Marys on crime and inflation will be able to sway voters in time for the midterms. But, no matter the outcome of those elections, one lesson should now be indisputable: treating fundamental political issues as out of bounds for debate is unwise and short-sighted. Such taboos hurt the country by making effective public policy unlikely, and they hurt political parties by making good campaign messaging impossible.

Seth Moskowitz is an editor at Persuasion. He blogs at Brain Candy and tweets at @skmoskowitz.