GOP Debate Tells Us Much by Saying Little

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By Richard Hahn

Unlike Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, the latest GOP debate yielded at least one substantive policy recommendation on criminal justice: “Prosecute criminals, target bad guys.” This banality was issued by no less a figure than the former Solicitor General of Texas, Ted Cruz, and it’s what passes for a criminal justice policy position in the political landscape of the Republican candidate-sphere. More time was spent last night pondering the question of Cruz’s electoral eligibility than was spent on crime. The GOP doesn’t like to get too deep about the issue, though they should, as an interchange between New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Ohio Governor John Kasich proves.

Christie, the only candidate with true law enforcement chops, got the tough question on crime: what did he blame for the rising rates of violence in major U.S. cities? Citing erstwhile NYC police commissioner Ray Kelly, he blamed the Obama Administration for “giving the benefit of the doubt to criminals,” which is, inconveniently, the way the American criminal justice system is set up to function. For a moment he dipped his toe into policy discussion, rebuking the Justice Department’s tolerance of state marijuana legalization. But all too quickly he subverted the conversation to a topic more easily crystalized into talking points: immigration. Sanctuary cities, according to Christie, were the real culprits behind the spike in violent crime. Never mind that the facts don’t seem to support Christie’s argument. Facts are optional in primary debates. Illegal immigration equals violent crime. Strangely, this is what Donald Trump told America, to cries of umbrage even within his own party, seven months ago. But by now it’s part of the narrative of the campaign trail, an unavoidable truism, and an easy way to get out of talking about hard issues of crime control.

Thankfully, the only other candidate to field questions about crime control was Kasich. Police brutality is, in the parlance of the GOP primary season, a fantasy. Even moderator Neil Cavuto seemed squeamish asking Kasich about Chicago’s effort to “sort of retrain their police” and “maybe make them not so quick to use their guns.” But the governor’s response was both sane and compassionate, and showed us where the GOP’s position on criminal justice could be. Kasich has a unique penchant for actually running on his record, and so he talked about the task force he created to suture the rifts between communities and law enforcement entities. He talked about allocating more funds for training, about issuing statewide standards on the use of deadly force, and about reaching out to those who don’t believe the justice system works for their benefit. Mostly he talked about the need for communication. And just before he drifted off into mumbled platitudes about “our grandchildren” he actually said something meaningful: “It’s all about getting people to listen to one another’s problems.”

The debate was held in North Charleston, South Carolina, where, nine months earlier, a policeman had fatally shot an unarmed suspect and lied about it on record. Two months after that, a white-supremacist gunman opened fire in the nearby Emmanuel AME Church, killing nine. “Getting people to listen to one another’s problems” regarding crime and justice seems to be a topic relevant to the city. But in this, as in any GOP debate, crime was an easily avoidable subject.

To a party that purportedly values fiscal efficiency, the money government would save by reforming the mechanics of criminal justice could provide a wealth of talking points. Unfortunately, this is not yet a “safe topic,” one in which opposing candidates can disagree and still adhere to party rhetoric. Let’s face it, primaries aren’t about differences on issues; they’re about attacking the character and mistakes of the opposition, and criminal justice reform is an issue riddled with opportunities for vitriol. Just ask Michael Dukakis. So we will not hear nuanced arguments about the murder rates of large cities in America. We will not hear about overspending on prisons. And we will not hear about how the GOP plans to bring communities together in the aftermath of violence. At least not yet.

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