It was a moment that may come back to haunt Joe Biden—perhaps as soon as tonight’s Democratic debate: In an earlier round this summer, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey wheeled on the former vice president, attacking his sponsorship of the 1994 federal crime bill with a roundhouse punch. “There are people right now in prison for life for drug offenses,” Booker said, “because you stood up and used that tough-on-crime phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine.”
It is true that the bill—which extended the death penalty to 60 new crimes, stiffened sentences, offered states strong financial incentives for building new prisons, and banned a range of assault weapons—helped lead to the wave of mass incarceration that’s resulted in the United States accounting for 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
But Booker’s implication that the law was simply a cynical sop to fearful white voters is at odds with the political realities of the time, when the bill passed with bipartisan support, including the votes of more than two-thirds of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), and with the backing of other black leaders beyond Capitol Hill. This is the second straight presidential election in which the crime bill has loomed as a loaded issue—Hillary Clinton was excoriated from the left in 2016 for her past support—and it will doubtless continue to surface as long as Biden is in the race. The current furor over the law is an object lesson in just how short the American political memory has become, and in how, in hindsight, complicated policy debates get flattened into stark shades of right and wrong.