Donald Trump and the Republican Party have seized on a call from anti-racism activists to "defund the police," believing that the new movement — which demands governments redistribute some police funding to other social welfare programs to help stop police brutality against black Americans — is a boon to Trump's reelection chances.
Trump has amplified the "defund the police" message since the movement began last week, speaking about it in a speech during a visit to Maine and tweeting about it seven times since June 4.
"So I think we're going to have a great victory, and we're going to take care of law enforcement, because law enforcement — they're saying 'defund the police.' 'Defund.' Think of it," Trump said during a roundtable with fishermen in Maine on Friday. "When I saw it, I said, 'What are you talking about?' 'We don't want to have any police,' they say. You don't want police?"
Trump's campaign is trying to pin the movement on Biden, with Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh tweeting on Sunday, "Protestors added 'Defund the Police' to the street in DC. @JoeBiden owns that movement now. Police organizations already know he's taken sides against them."
Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel similarly suggested voters will choose Trump over Biden in November because of the issue.
"Joe Biden's silence on calls to 'defund the police' shows how far left he has moved on issue after issue. Americans support the right to peacefully protest, but still want law and order. @realDonaldTrump is the only candidate with the courage to make that clear!" she tweeted on Monday.
But experts aren't so sure that the "defund the police" movement will have any measurable impact on Trump's reelection chances.
"I'm skeptical that 'defund the police' will be a significant liability for Democrats unless Biden and the party really embrace it," Nathan Gonzalez, a nonpartisan political handicapper at Inside Elections, said in an interview Monday. "I'm also skeptical that Democrats won't support Biden if he doesn't embrace 'defund the police.'"
Democrats, including Biden, have not fully embraced the message.
A spokesman said Monday that Biden does not support defunding the police but rather "supports the urgent need for reform," including more training "to avert tragic, unjustifiable deaths."
They added that there needed to be more funding for "public schools, summer programs, and mental health and substance abuse treatment separate from funding for policing."
"There are many police departments across the country who are seeking to realize these kinds of changes, but haven't had the resources to — and the Trump administration has in fact made obtaining those resources more difficult," they said.
Polls suggest the current protests do not appear to be having a negative impact on Democrats as Republicans have predicted.
A CNN poll released Monday found 42% of voters said race relations will be "extremely" important to deciding how they vote — the most of any other issue surveyed. And the poll found voters trust Biden over Trump on that issue by a whopping 63% to 31% margin.
History also shows that focusing on a "law and order" messaging may not help Republicans fend off Democrats at the polls.
In 2018, Republicans tried to beat back a surge of anti-Trump sentiment by tying Democrats to the "Abolish ICE" movement, which called for the government to get rid of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
That didn't work, however, and Democrats rode a wave of support to win back control of the House for the first time since 2010.
"Republicans are underestimating President Trump's ability to unify and energize the Democratic Party," Gonzales said Monday.
He added that the GOP's message against Biden is already convoluted, with the "defund the police" accusations muddying it even further.
"Republicans also have multiple cases that they are trying to litigate against Biden: He's 'Sleepy Joe,' he's Beijing Biden, and now he's Defund the Police Biden," Gonzales said. "There's a lot going on."
Overall, Democrats say Trump's efforts to undercut Biden in order to sabotage his campaign more broadly have not gone as planned.
"The misapprehension that whatever Trump wants to talk about is inherently effective and that he gets to act as the media's at-large assignment editor has been put to bed," one Biden adviser told CNN in April.
They pointed specifically to Trump's failed attempts in 2018, as well as his attempt in the 2017 Virginia governor's race to summon fears over MS-13, which Republican candidate Ed Gillespie echoed in various campaign ads and remarks.
Gillespie ultimately lost that race to now-Gov. Ralph Northam, who received 54% of the vote to Gillespie's 45%.
One Republican close to the White House who spoke to Politico last month worried that Trump and his advisers were struggling to settle on one effective message against Biden, noting that, by and large, voters were unconcerned with the things Trump was focused on.
"They have not coalesced around the best message to attack Biden, and the message that Biden is diminished doesn't scare people enough," they said. "A lot of Americans just don't want the government to screw things up."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.
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