Blaming Progressive Prosecutors for ... What, Exactly?

by Neil H. Buchanan

"If you don’t recall the national media headlines reading 'Tough-on-crime Republican prosecutors on defensive over crime increase,' that’s because there hasn’t been any such coverage."  Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman makes that telling point after running through some statistics about the murder rates in Jacksonville and Fort Worth, comparing them unfavorably to San Francisco -- with the two former cities having double the latter's number of murders, or worse, in 2019-21, even though all three cities have roughly the same number of residents.
Waldman's larger purpose in that piece is to describe how the media narrative on crime reliably defaults to the most regressive talking points available.  He then points out that the press's lazy framing of the economy is similarly helpful to Republicans -- so much so that 55 percent of Americans in a recent poll said that the US is in a recession.  That is absolutely not true, but the press's constant drumbeat about inflation makes everyone ignore the incredibly good numbers about jobs and the comeback from the pandemic.
Indeed, several months ago, I noted that coverage of inflation had reached the stage where even the most disengaged person -- or the laziest comedian or pundit -- can just say, "Inflation, am I right?" and assume that everyone will nod along wearily.

I will return to the inflation discussion in paired columns on Verdict and here on Dorf on Law on Thursday of this week.  And frequent readers of this blog know that I frequently critique the media's sloppy, uninformed coverage of anything even mildly technical.  Here, however, my concern is not (at least in a direct sense) with the media's coverage of issues but with the cowardice and betrayal of many self-identified Democrats in the face of anything resembling bad news.  It is not only the press that defaults to Republican assumptions.  Many Democrats -- voters as well as weak-kneed officeholders -- do so as well.

Waldman's discussion of crime in San Francisco was a response to the ongoing recall vote against San Francisco's progressive prosecutor, Chesa Boudin.  That vote is happening today, with polls showing that Boudin is probably going to lose badly.  [Update: He lost very badly.]  Why?  Because "even liberal San Francisco" supposedly cannot tolerate the lawlessness that criminal-hugging progressive prosecutors unleash on their cities' unsuspecting, cowering people.  Was that sarcastic?  Yes?  Well, we could double the snark and still not do justice to the utter nonsense at work here.

California's strangely permissive system of officeholder recalls, of course, has turned that state into a petri dish (not a "peach tree dish") in which right-wing billionaires develop toxins to poison the body politic, never accepting defeat at the polls.  When Governor Gavin Newsom trounced his tormentors in his own recall election nine months ago, there was never any doubt that the right wingers would try again (and again and again).  Boudin is likely to lose his job, and he will not be the last to do so.

But why?  This election is not even about California as a whole, which at least has large pockets of Republican voters.  San Francisco is a classic blue enclave, and its citizens should be able to see through the stupidity of the anti-progressive nonsense.  Instead, they are piling on in utterly illogical and revealing ways.

To be clear, this is not merely an example of the public blaming a politician for things that are happening "on his watch."  President Biden's sagging poll numbers are driven in large part by inflation, over which he has no serious control.  But Conservative British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is also being generally blamed because "things are bad."  (In Johnson's case, there are specific reasons to despise him, but inflation is not one of them.)

When Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell openly admitted that he would refuse to tell people what his party would do if given control of Congress again, he made clear that it was good politics to be in favor of nothing.  So long as he could block even marginal progress by Biden on important issues, his party could blame the Democrats for everything.  At least when they were complaining about the Affordable Care Act, Republicans had quasi-specific complaints and bothered to claim that they could replace that law with something better.  Or when they opposed the Iran nuclear agreement, they said that President Obama should have gotten a "better deal," which is vacuous but familiar in how it typifies running against something rather than proposing and defending something.  Now, they are skipping over the part where they even claim to have better ideas.

No one should mistake my words here as a defense of that kind of cynicism.  Moreover, to the extent that we once might have been able to say that such political games were correctable -- "Yes, Republicans won the 2010 midterms, but the Democrats had their own wave election in 2018" -- the stakes now could not be higher.  If Republicans retake Congress, they will have the means to ensure that they never lose it (or the presidency) again.

In any event, the recall of progressive prosecutors is not merely a "he's in office, so it's his fault" phenomenon.  It is a matter of comfortable liberals revealing themselves not to believe their own stated principles.  It boils down to saying that they were OK with the idea of reforming the criminal justice system to make it less brutalizing and bigoted, until somehow they thought that crime went up because the cops were not being allowed to beat heads.
Usually, the term "limousine liberals" is a mere epithet designed to insinuate that people who have not given up all earthly goods and joined a convent or monastery have no business calling for less inequality.  In this situation, however, we see something much closer to the truth, which is that far too many self-identified liberals are willing to abandon their professed principles at a moment's notice, lapsing back into a lizard-brain reaction to manipulated facts and complete logical emptiness.

An episode of "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" last November addressed the homelessness crisis in America.  (I am currently in the midst of a month-long visit to Vancouver.  As many good things as there are to say about this city, province, and country -- no mass shootings feeling especially salient these days -- I am sad to report that the homelessness crisis is as bad here as I have seen in any American city.  This is not a uniquely American problem.)  In that episode, Oliver showed a person who claimed to have become less liberal every time she had to clean up human feces in her neighborhood -- an especially unpleasant version of the adage that a liberal is a conservative who has not yet been the victim of a crime.

Oliver quickly pointed out that regressive policies had created the excremental problem in the first place, including closing public toilets from dusk until dawn.  Everybody poops, and if we have given people no other place to do so, what should we expect?  Yet somehow, the response is: "I wanted to be nice to Those People, but I now see that they're simply disgusting.  Get them out of my sight."

The New York Times ran a story on Sunday about Boudin's recall, and the narrative was similar.  Wealthier San Franciscans are upset about crime in some general way, and their response is not to look at facts or logic but to say that their progressive prosecutor is to blame.  Again, unlike the parallel unfairness of Americans blaming Biden and Brits blaming Johnson for inflation, this is not a "blame whoever is in power" story.  No one in the national conversation is saying "throw ALL the bums out" because of an upswing in crime.  They are blaming progressive prosecutors, even those whose every effort at reform has been minimized or stymied by ruthless opponents.

The award-winning PBS documentary "Philly D.A." showed how civil rights attorney Larry Krasner brought a progressive approach to prosecution in Philadelphia and was undermined by the police bosses and entrenched regressive Assistant D.A.'s.  Unsurprisingly, the same playbook is being run against every reformer who has won D.A. elections in recent years around the country.  Boudin is in good company.

So what is the case against Boudin?  The piece in The Times begins with an SF version of the woman in Oliver's show -- a lifelong liberal whose views are being challenged by gritty reality.  In this case, it is a veteran of George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign with liberal credentials up the wazoo.  "But the squalor and petty crime that she sees as crescendoing on some city streets — her office has been broken into four times during the coronavirus pandemic — has tested her liberal outlook."  Notably, this is not presented as an odd reaction.  After all, why not say that one's liberal outlook is being reinforced by the "crescendoing" crime, given that we tend to think that our policy ideas (especially when they have not been given a chance to work) are not the problem?  The presumption is apparently that crime is up because of liberal policies and that we must oh-so-reluctantly admit that only the law-and-order types have the answers.

In San Francisco, the star of The Times's story is leading "moderate Democrats" in an effort funded heavily by conservative dark money to unseat Boudin.  What did he do wrong -- that is, what is it specifically that he did that tests liberals' outlook?  As the reporters accurately point out, crime in SF has been essentially unchanged since Boudin took office.  But those same reporters then go off the rails with this: "[Boudin's] message of leniency for perpetrators has rankled residents of the city."
Pardon me?  Several paragraphs later, after telling us that Boudin's parents were 60's radicals, we finally get some content regarding this "message of leniency."  Specifically, Boudin "promised to end cash bail, stop prosecuting children as adults and expand diversion programs that offer defendants a chance at rehabilitation instead of prison — all steps he has taken while in office."
Again, crime overall is NOT UP since Boudin did any of this.  And to their credit, the reporters did quote him making an important point: "'And then people read the story [about a shoplifter], they see the video, and they perceive crime as being out of control,' Mr. Boudin said. 'When in fact things like shoplifting are down dramatically. It doesn’t mean we don’t have a real problem with auto burglaries, but the notion that it’s out of control today and it wasn’t in 2019 is just demonstrably false.'"  In addition, the reporters describe how a Willie Horton-like situation is being exploited politically, even though that kind of thing happens under hard-line prosecutors as well.
Most importantly, The Times article points out that the SFPD hates Boudin and is doing everything possible to undermine him (with their union calling him the "#1 choice of criminals and gang members").  Officers are openly telling citizens that Boudin is unwilling to prosecute crimes, but in fact the police often do not respond to calls.  If San Franciscans are blaming a rise in auto thefts on, say, the end of cash bail, what does that say about them -- especially when (as Boudin points out) only one percent of auto thefts result in an arrest?
I give the reporters for The Times credit for presenting important evidence about what is truly happening.  Indeed, one might view the article as a deliberate effort to show how empty the recall effort is, because every time they describe what is actually happening, they are reduced to following that up with drivel, such as saying that "recall advocates describe a pervasive feeling that quality of life in San Francisco has deteriorated."  Even with that kind of vague nonsense, neither the reporters nor anyone they interview can point to anything that would tie Boudin's policies to that "pervasive feeling."

Yet wealthy San Francisco liberals are leading the effort to recall Chesa Boudin, because crime.  Actually, no, not just because of crime.  Because somehow people think that a completely broken system that cried out for reform -- that kept poor people in jail for being poor, that prosecuted minors as adults, and that put people in prison who had no reason to be in prison -- was all that stood between us and Fury Road.
This is, and has always been, racist and classist.  It is rarely true that "both sides are to blame" in American politics, but at least in this case, enough Democrats are willing to act like Republicans that a truly bad set of conservative ideas suddenly becomes bipartisan.  So much for the value of moderation and consensus.