For president struggling on protests, ‘defund the police’ is a gift

Virtually everything has been going against President Trump in recent weeks, but he just caught a major political break.

With the exception of a rebounding stock market, Trump has been battered politically by a raging pandemic, a calamitous economic shutdown, and two weeks of protests over the killing of George Floyd that have spread from the largest cities to the smallest towns.

He has been castigated by a slew of former military men -- from Jim Mattis and Mike Mullen to Colin Powell -- while drawing sharp criticism from the Catholic archbishop and the Episcopal bishop of Washington.

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And in a spate of polls, Trump is getting low marks for handling the protests, and slipping behind Joe Biden by anywhere from 7 to 14 points.

But now comes a phrase that could transform the debate: defund the police.

Those words, being pushed by left-wing groups, are in my view political suicide, and the Trump team is already doing everything possible to tar Biden with the slogan.

Kayleigh McEnany wasted no time in telling reporters the president is “appalled” by the movement. The White House press secretary said “the fact that you have sitting congresswomen wanting to defund the police--notably Rashida Tlaib; notably Biden advisor AOC, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; former Clinton and Eric Holder spokesperson Brian Fallon wanting to defund our police across this country--it is extraordinary.”

There’s the strategy, saying that much of the Democratic Party wants to go the defunding route, and hanging that albatross on Biden.

The former vice president let Monday go by with just a terse statement from a spokesman. But when asked by CBS News anchor Norah O’Donnell, Biden said: “No, I don’t support defunding the police. I support conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness.”

This feels like a historic moment. In a stunning finding, a Washington Post poll finds 74 percent of Americans saying they support the protests that have engulfed the country. And while there’s a partisan divide, with 87 percent of Democrats backing the demonstrations, the Republicans in support--53 percent--are still a majority.

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More important, 69 percent of those questioned say Floyd’s killing reflects a broader problem in law enforcement, while 29 percent view the Minneapolis tragedy as an isolated incident. Six years ago, after the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner on Staten Island, just 43 percent viewed these deaths as part of a larger problem, with 51 percent calling them isolated incidents.

In that same poll, 61 percent disapprove of Trump’s handling of the protests, while 35 percent approve.

And I can’t imagine that would improve after Trump tweeted a bizarre conspiracy theory about 75-year-old Martin Gugino, who is still hospitalized after being shoved by Buffalo police, saying he “could be an ANTIFA provocateur” and “fell harder than was pushed. Could be a setup?” His lawyer denies that, and two officers have been charged with assault.

But if the tone of the president’s rhetoric isn’t matching the moment, people who have watched their cities burn surely want law and order, even if they are disgusted by police mistreatment of blacks. And that’s why “defund the police” is such a toxic slogan, except perhaps on the Minneapolis City Council. Without police, who would respond to robberies, domestic violence, gang shootings?

Even Bernie Sanders tells the New Yorker “we want to redefine what police departments do,” not defund them.

For those who say they just want to replace the existing departments with better ones that have a new mission, I’d ask, why are you using the word defund? You want police reform, and you still need to hire and train officers.

Congressional Democrats, who took a knee at the Capitol, rolled out a bill that would, among other things, ban chokeholds, end racial profiling and make it easier to sue police officers who unjustly kill or injure people. The president has offered no police reforms, saying 99 percent of officers are good people.

Some mayors, such as New York’s Bill de Blasio and Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles, are pushing to cut their police budgets and divert the money to social services, which may be good politics but doesn’t get at the root problem.

If Biden strongly opposes the defunding movement, he’ll draw the wrath of left-wing activists. But they’ve opposed him since the day he got in the race. Liberals journalists agreed he was too old, too out of touch and insufficiently woke. Yet he clobbered his opponents, in no small part because of overwhelming support from African-Americans.

Both Trump and Biden will try to cast this election as a referendum on who is best equipped to protect the country--from a pandemic, from economic ruin, from police brutality, from rioters. The outcome may ride on how those terms are defined.