MOORHEAD, Minn. — In the history of bad messaging, "defund the police" takes first prize. It barely edges out "Herschel Walker" among words that give a vast majority of Minnesotans the shakes.

Yet it remains the rallying cry for the most liberal of Minnesota Democrats, and the gift that keeps on giving for Republicans. You want to know why DFL state legislative candidates didn't do better in the Twin Cities suburbs on election day, as was expected? Maybe the vast middle doesn't want to defund the police.

Nor do we want to dismantle them, abolish them or turn them into a neighborhood garden club that patrols the streets while singing happy tunes. These are some of the ideas that came after the tragic murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers.

What we want, I think, is for the cops to stop killing innocent Black people with impunity. Some of us also want the police to stop looking and acting like a military force instead of community-based law enforcement, but first things first.

So maybe what we're looking for is police reform. While that might not be as sexy as defunding the police in the extreme left wing of the DFL, it is likely what the vast majority of Democrats think needs to happen and might even draw the interest of moderate Republicans. Imagine that.

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What police reform looks like is the billion-dollar question, of course, and whatever it is likely won't satisfy the most radical activists. Enhanced training? More social workers within a department? More community oversight? Maybe actually prosecuting those cops who kill Black people? Those pushing for police defunding will say all of that has already been tried and has failed.

But since the most intense days of Minneapolis protests and riots following Floyd's death, support for vaporizing police departments has waned as cooler heads prevailed. Polling shows that even most Democrats support the police, and for good reason. They help protect our communities — Moorhead, Rochester, Duluth, Alexandria, Willmar, Brainerd — even if they aren't perfect and even if there are bad cops among them.

Politically, that means dropping the phrase "defund the police" like a rotten bullhead. The sooner the better. Words matter, and as long as the message is that Democrats want to abolish police departments — even if they don't —Republicans will properly use the phrase as a mallet as they did this year.

If the DFL wants to hold onto the governorship and the state house in 2022, putting distance between themselves and defunding the police would be Politics 101.

It might be easier said than done. The left flank is already denying it cost Democrats anything in 2020 and is, in fact, saying the party needs to get more liberal to win. It is a disturbing mixture of abdicating responsibility with fantasy. Those in reliably left-wing districts need to visit outstate Minnesota to see how their message plays.

I can tell them: Defund the police? No thanks.

Readers can reach columnist Mike McFeely at or (701) 451-5655.