Speakers at the Republican National Convention have tried to strike a careful balance between championing “law and order” while also expressing support for reforms designed to reduce tensions between minority communities and law enforcement.
It’s a needle President Trump’s reelection campaign has been trying to thread since Joe Biden emerged from the Democratic primaries as his party’s nominee: condemning both George Floyd’s death and also the violence that has broken out — including spikes in violent crime in major cities apart from protests and rioting. Biden’s campaign has similarly tried to balance calls for increasing funding for police in some contexts while supporting liberal proposals for reallocating their funds to social services in others.
The Democratic National Convention contained numerous tributes to Floyd, an unarmed black man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, but few denunciations of the violence taking place in liberal-run cities such as Portland, Chicago, or New York City, even as some polls show increased public concern about crime.
Republican speakers have tried to correct that oversight, expressing opposition to what they describe as the most extreme liberal proposals concerning the police.
“Look at what’s happening in America’s cities — all run by Democrats. Crime, violence, mob rule. Democrats refuse to denounce the mob,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, in his convention speech. “And their response to the chaos? Defund the police, defund border patrol, defund the military.”
“They’ll disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 to live next door,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican. “And the defunded police aren’t on their way.”
Donald Trump Jr. declared, “Anarchists have been flooding our streets, and Democrat mayors are ordering the police to stand down. Small businesses across America, many of them minority-owned, are being torched by mobs.”
“What happened to George Floyd is a disgrace,” the president’s eldest son said.
But criminal justice reform did not go unheralded. “In 1994, Biden led the charge on a crime bill that put millions of black Americans behind bars,” Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, said in his keynote address. “President Trump’s criminal justice reform law fixed many of the disparities Biden created and made our system more fair and just for all Americans.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said, “of course we know that every single black life is valuable” in one of the night’s defter attempts to balance the priorities of law and justice. “The black cops who’ve been shot in the line of duty — they matter. The black small-business owners who’ve watched their life’s work go up in flames — they matter,” she continued. “The black kids who’ve been gunned down on the playground — their lives matter too.”
The question is whether this pitch can break through, especially in the suburbs, where law and order has historically helped Republicans, but voters have turned sharply against the party under Trump. The president’s numbers got worse after Floyd’s death, partly because suburbanites did not trust him to be a calming influence, even as he warned the suburbs were at risk.
But a recent Pew Research Center poll found violent crime cracking the top five public issues for the first time in this campaign — at 59%, just a few points behind the coronavirus. For much of the summer, it appeared Trump had bet incorrectly that voters were more worried about crime than COVID-19.
“Americans want to feel safe, in their homes, their neighborhoods, and especially in their kid’s schools,” said Republican strategist Jon Gilmore. “This applies across the United States, among swing voters, and in the battleground states. Support for law enforcement is still strong, and I think the RNC is right to make it a topic of the convention.”
“We know that Americans, no matter where they live, can see what is happening in Democrat-run cities and want a restoration of peace,” said communications director Tim Murtaugh. “President Trump is on the side of law-abiding citizens, while Joe Biden and the Democrats have sided with the rioters.”