Nervous Republicans struggle on volatile politics of police reform

An absolute sea change in public opinion about race, police and protests has left Republicans scrambling to recalibrate their message.

And numerous media reports say party honchos are worried about November, and about the president inflaming the situation through Twitter.

There’s a long way to go before Election Day, of course, and polling leads can quickly evaporate. Just ask Michael Dukakis, who led George H.W. Bush by 17 points at this point in the cycle.

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Still, says the Washington Post, the political tides have “triggered deep distress within the GOP about the incumbent’s judgment and instincts, as well as fears that voters could sweep the party out of power completely on Election Day.”

But even the Post says that in the view of party strategists, “there is no sign yet of a mass exodus from the runaway Trump train. If anything, most elected Republicans see themselves as prisoners onboard, calculating that jumping off would lead to almost certain defeat.”

The New York Times describes Republicans on the Hill, “having long fashioned themselves as the party of law and order,” now being “caught flat-footed by an election-year groundswell of public support for overhauling policing in America to address systemic racism.”

Mitch McConnell says the GOP is working on a legislative proposal, and the point here is, you can’t be something with nothing. Nancy Pelosi’s House will certainly pass a Democratc reform bill that, among other things, outlaws police chokeholds and sets standards for departments to receive federal funding.

McConnell has apparently concluded he can’t just ignore the House measure and hope the issue fades. He’s asked Tim Scott, the only black Republican senator, to take the lead.

And with Trump’s focus squarely on law and order, the White House has yet to suggest any police reforms.

No one knows whether this moment will last--support for gun control tends to surge and then ebb after mass shootings--but 53 percent of registered voters now support Black Lives Matter, according to Civiqs. Another 25 percent oppose the group and 20 percent are neutral--a double-digit jump for the controversial organization.

But it does feel like the seismic reaction to the killing of George Floyd, whose brother emotionally testified on the Hill Wednesday how hard it was to watch him beg for his life--has shaken up politics for good. The more difficult question, amid left-wing calls to “defund the police,” is how to translate the anger and passion into concrete reform, especially in an election year.

Against that backdrop, it wasn’t surprising to see Republican senators scurrying away from reporters asking about the latest presidential tweet.

Why would Trump go after a 75-year-old protester in Buffalo when we’ve all seen the video of two officers shoving him to the ground, leaving him bloodied and still in the hospital. The case of Marin Gugino was so egregious that the officers were quickly charged with assault.

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And yet Trump tweeted that Gugino “could be an ANTIFA provocateur,” that he was “appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment,” that “he fell harder than was pushed...Could be a set up?”

There isn’t a shred of evidence to support that, and Gugino’s lawyer questioned why the president would make such “dark, dangerous, and untrue accusations against him.” Trump tagged One America News, which floated the conspiracy theory based on an anonymous blog.

I understand that the president likes to punch back against political opponents and media detractors. But why pick on an elderly man attacked by the cops?

There has been talk among aides that Trump may give a televised speech on race relations. If that happens, he’ll have to figure out how to square his tough rhetoric against urban violence with not just sympathy for the Floyd family but tangible proposals on racism in law enforcement.

Words matter in politics, never more than now. Our country has suffered a deep wound and needs to heal. But in the end, wherever you stand on this agonizing issue, words are empty if they’re not translated into action.