Opinion Those GOP ‘tough on crime’ ads? They’re based on a very big lie.


HR King
May 29, 2001
If you live in an area with a close midterm election race, there’s a good chance you can’t turn on your TV without seeing ads full of menacing music and lurid imagery telling you that if the Democrat wins, your community will descend into an anarchic nightmare of chaos and violence.

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But the idea that crime rates in America will depend on which party controls Congress is ridiculous on its face. The truth — which in a better world would play some role in campaign debates — is that almost nothing Congress does will have any more than the smallest effect on crime.
As The Post reports, in the last month or so Republicans have made crime the primary focus of their campaigns. Apparently, inflation just didn’t provide the appropriate dose of fear and rage:

During the first three weeks of September, the Republican candidates and allies aired about 53,000 commercials on crime, according to AdImpact, which tracks political spots on network TV. That’s up from the 29,000 crime ads they aired in all of August. Nearly 50 percent of all Republican online ads in battleground states have focused on policing and safety since the start of the month, according to data from Priorities USA, a group focused on electing Democrats.
As Republicans know well — because they’ve run on this issue for decades — crime is both a real problem and a symbolic one. It can affect people’s lives in profound ways. But bringing it up can also activate fear, tribalistic distrust and oftentimes outright bigotry, emotions that override any rational assessment of problems and solutions.


As ever, Republicans are blissfully unconstrained by facts. You can count the number of Democrats in Congress who would “defund the police” on one hand, but Republicans will simply accuse every Democrat of harboring that wish. So let’s be clear: While a couple of members do want to drastically reduce police budgets, any ad saying “Democrat X wants to defund the police!” is almost certainly lying to you.
But there is a truth in the general vicinity, which is that Republicans do in fact want to spend more on police than we do now; the essence of their position is that police budgets must always rise. In some states they’ve even passed laws that would punish cities that cut their police budgets, no matter the reason. There is a real policy difference here: Republicans generally favor whatever sounds “tough” — more cops, longer sentences, less accountability for police misconduct — while Democrats tend to have a broader view of what government could do to reduce crime, while also often supporting more spending on police.

Republicans want you to believe the recent crime increase happened because police had their budgets cut. But that’s false. The crime increase associated with the pandemic happened everywhere — in cities and rural areas, where both Democrats and Republicans are in charge — suggesting that it had little or nothing to do with policy choices made in one place or another.

Criminologists are still trying to determine exactly why crime (especially homicides) rose when the pandemic hit. Multiple factors are at play, including widespread stress and a surge in gun proliferation. But one thing you can’t blame is the size of police budgets.
Though there’s a good case to be made for changing how we spend public safety dollars, there just hasn’t been any wide-scale defunding of police, no matter what you think of that goal. A recent report by the centrist Democratic group Third Way showed that large cities run by Democrats spend more per capita on police than large cities run by Republicans, and increased police budgets more in the last budget cycle.

According to the Census Bureau, in 2019 — before crime rates rose — state and local governments spent $123 billion on police (that figure doesn’t include jails and courts). So if crime rose in 2020, there must have been a huge decrease in police budgets, right?

Wrong. In 2020, state and local governments spent $129 billion on police in 2020, $6 billion more than they had the year before. So whatever caused the crime increase, it wasn’t budget cuts.
And the state and local level is where the bulk of policing and crime policy is made. The federal government investigates and prosecutes certain kinds of crimes, and provides grants to local police departments. But the vast majority of decisions and spending happen at the local level.

Which brings us back to all those fear-mongering TV ads. You might argue that campaigns for national office are about practical matters that lawmakers will work on, but they’re also about values; while your senator might not have an impact on crime in your community, at least you want someone representing you who feels the way you do about it.

It’s also true that national debates filter down to local policy. When everybody was talking about “three strikes” laws and draconian mandatory minimum sentences in the 1980s and 1990s, it created pressure that wound up influencing policy at all levels, giving us the highest incarceration rate of any country on earth.
Some people would like to go back to those days, and if you feel that way, go ahead and vote for a congressional candidate who says that’s what they want. But if they’re telling you that decisions they’d make in office would make a real difference to crime in your community, you’d be a fool to believe it.