Okay, so we all agree that Joe Biden needs a “Sister Souljah moment” to prove to swing voters that he won’t tolerate riots in the street. But it’s more complicated than that. Because Sister Souljah isn’t the whole story for the “Sister Souljah moment.”
Back in 1992, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton knew he would lose a general election if he looked soft on crime. Democrats had been vulnerable on the issue since the race riots of 1968, which is why, by 1992, there had been only one Democratic presidential term in the preceding 22 years. Clinton knew exactly what George H.W. Bush did to Mike Dukakis with Willie Horton, too.
That led Clinton to denounce Sister Souljah that June. Everyone remembers this. What many people don’t remember is that Sister Souljah was only the second half of his demonstration. The first came in January of 1992 when Governor Clinton executed a mentally incapacitated black man to show voters that he was a new kind of law-and-order Democrat.
The man’s name was Ricky Ray Rector and his fate is one of the more grotesque stories in modern American politics. Rector was black Arkansan who had killed two men—including a police officer—before turning the gun around and shooting himself in the forehead. He survived, but needed a lobotomy to save his life. Which resulted in severe mental incapacitation. Rector was convicted on both counts and sentenced to death, just as the Democrats were debating the subject during the 1992 presidential primary.
As governor, Clinton was asked to give Rector a commutation, due to his obvious incapacitation at time of trial. Clinton not only refused, he doubled down. On January 24, 1992, just before the primaries kicked off, Clinton made a show of leaving the campaign trail to travel back home to oversee the execution. Personally. Not that Rector had any clue his death was about to become a stunt. When Rector was served his last meal before his execution, he left a slice of pecan pie behind. He told the guards he was “saving it for later.”
We don’t recall Ricky Ray Rector the way we do Sister Souljah, though. Still, they are the two sides of the political pincer movement Clinton performed that allowed him to convince Americans that he was a new, different kind of Democrat and that it was safe to let him occupy the White House.
It’s not clear that either of them would have worked without the other.
So what is Joe Biden supposed to do? Show up in Kenosha with an AR-15 and stand guard outside a liquor store?
Obviously not. The thing about Biden is that even if there were a Ricky Ray Rector-type option on the table, he probably wouldn’t take it. Note, for instance, that Biden hasn’t even tried to turn the story around by going hard at Kyle Rittenhouse, which would be the easy play. That sort of ghoulishness just isn’t in his makeup. (Thank goodness.)
But clearly Biden needs to do something more than the statement he gave on Wednesday, which will be more effective if it, too, is part of a pincer movement.
What could Biden do to appeal to swing voters? Here’s a trio of free ideas from a conservative Republican—me—who wants to see real leadership to end the violence and restore peace in the streets.
First, issue a statement condemning the violence and looting we have witnessed in too many beautiful American cities in clear and unequivocal terms. Every American has a right to protest, but no one has the right to inflict harm upon their American brothers and sisters. The Biden team wants to make this campaign about “who we are.” Go ahead and tell us what that looks like and what it doesn’t. Fan out your surrogates on every media channel possible with this message.
Then go to Kenosha. Call your volunteers to take to the streets that have been damaged by protests and ask them to help restore them to their previous state. Request that they scrub graffiti and lock arms with business owners who have watched their stores be burned and looted. Take a week off fundraising to support a national GoFundMe campaign to help business owners get back what they lost.
Finally, launch a national call for unity and prayer. Biden held a successful virtual convention using Zoom-like technology. Bring us together again for the shared purpose of renewing our American spirit which so deeply yearns for the leadership people are looking for Biden to provide.
This moment calls for bigness. A statement isn’t enough. Biden needs to show voters he means business. And unlike Bill Clinton, he can do it in a way that’s both strong and generous and compassionate.