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In 1988, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, left, debated with Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis during a presidential debate in Los Angeles.

Are Voters Ready to Move on From Willie Horton?

Democratic debates show how far the conversation has come on justice reform.

This week’s presidential debate featured plenty of crossfire from Democratic candidates over the scope and pace of criminal justice reforms. It may have seemed like a normal part of the political conversation today given what we know about mass incarceration, racial disparities in policing and the opioid crisis. But it’s worth pausing here, in an age of lowered violent crime rates and newfound appreciation for police brutality, to note how far the national conversation over justice reform has come in the past few election cycles.

The back-and-forth between candidates, 15 months before the 2020 presidential election, would have been unthinkable in the Democratic debates of 1988 or 1996 or 2004 or even 2012. Unthinkable for fear that a Republican president or presidential candidate would immediately pounce on these reform ideas as being "soft on crime," and thus dangerous and unpresidential. George Bush, the elder, used Willie Horton in 1988 to successfully stir up white fear of crime about his opponent, Michael Dukakis. Donald Trump has used “American carnage” and unfounded fear of the link between immigrants and crime as a primal theme.

The Democratic discussion over how far justice reforms should go, and whether some of the leading candidates ought to be punished for their past positions, likely will trigger a barrage of Twitter-infused criticism from President Trump even before the Democratic field is winnowed sometime next year. Sure, criminal justice reforms have attracted bipartisan support. Trump backed the First Step Act, which reduced sentences for nonviolent offenses and resulted in the release last month of nearly 3,000 people from Federal prisons. But there is no reason to believe the president won’t resume his law-and-order theme during the campaign to hammer away at whomever his Democratic opponent turns out to be.

The open question for the nation as a whole, then, is whether political attacks against Democrats for being “soft on crime” will have the same force and success they have had for decades and whether those coming attacks from the White House will entice voters beyond Trump’s base into rejecting the Democratic candidate’s commitment to public safety. If the Democrats continue to talk this way about criminal justice, the upcoming election might (in addition to everything else) become a test of how comfortable ordinary Americans are about the pace and breadth of justice reform. Maybe the Democrats want that. Maybe not.

It ought to be beyond dispute now that more voters today are more educated about the brutal and often racist impact of the tough-on-crime policies a generation ago. It is clear as well that the current opioid epidemic has caused many Americans with little previous experience with prosecutors, drug laws and prisons to learn quick, painful lessons about how arbitrary and capricious it all can be. But how far the spirit of this reform goes is tough to gauge, especially in toss-up states that likely will decide the election. Does it extend, for example, to police reform in the face of Trump’s support from many police unions?

Another open question is whether Trump would be able to nationalize the conversation about criminal justice (and law and order) the way Richard Nixon did 50 years ago or the way George H.W. Bush did 30 years ago. What happens to the political conversation, for example, if a paroled ex-offender shoots someone next fall in Michigan or Wisconsin or if Philadelphia’s murder rate spikes next summer? It’s easy to understand why Democrats see justice reform as a winning political topic. So much of it polls so well, especially with younger voters. But if history has taught us anything it is that big reforms are seldom linear. Maybe the 2020 election will tell us how far the arc of justice has bent and also how much further it has to go.