Don't look at crime trends to grasp Al Gore's newfound wish to become the "law enforcement president."
Look at poll trends.
Crime has taken a holiday. From thefts to murders, from L.A. to Boston, crime has dropped in recent years. Trouble is, in recent weeks, Gore's popularity has nose dived, too.
Still, even when falling, crime retains enough electricity as an issue to jump-start political campaigns.
Voila: After the vice president buffed up his law-and-order image last week through TV commercials and campaign speeches, he rebounded in the polls.
This power that crime has to lift, or crush, candidates harms the nation. The reason is that today's campaign style, marked by sound bites and 30-second attack ads, leaves no room for a rational discussion of the issue. Thus, fear trumps reason in the formulation of anti-crime policies. Courses of action arising out of fear are often themselves scary.
Blame a renegade Democrat, Alabama Gov. George Corley Wallace, for injecting crime into presidential politics. Before his bid for the White House, candidates for the office didn't broach the topic, since for the most part crime was not a federal matter.
Wallace's example inspired Richard Nixon. Ever since, the crime issue has figured heavily into presidential races.
Republicans enjoyed the upper hand, on account of the Democratic propensities to protect civil liberties and to focus on the social conditions that prompt crime - tendencies the Republicans twisted into evidence that the Democrats coddled criminals.
The close link between the Democratic Party and people of color also hurt, since many whites associated minorities with crime - an association Republicans milked the most with the Willie Horton ad on behalf of George Bush the elder.
Horton was a black convict who raped a white woman after escaping while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison. Republican strategist Lee Atwater vowed to make Horton the running mate of the "little bastard," meaning Michael Dukakis, the Democratic presidential nominee and Massachusetts governor. Atwater kept his word.
The Dukakis horror story no doubt inspired Bill Clinton to establish unimpeachable tough-on-crime credentials. Thus, he interrupted his campaign for president to fly back to Arkansas, where he was governor, to approve the execution of a man so brain-damaged that he put aside the dessert from his last meal to eat later. There. Clinton's no milquetoast.
The Dukakis nightmare remains so fresh for Gore that he has refused to exploit a chink in the armor of George Bush the younger - namely, his refusal to stop executions in Texas, where he's governor, despite trials so obviously shaky as to prompt reasonable doubts about the guilt of the condemned.
Last week instead, Gore is touting new, get-tough proposals. He would hire 10,000 additional prosecutors in localities across the nation. And he backs a package of initiatives, including a constitutional amendment, to aid victims.
Though the amendment is worrisome - it may inadvertently make trials less fair by upsetting the balance between the defendant's rights and the state's powers - crime victims and prosecutors alike could use help.
Still, the crime debate that takes place in presidential campaigns lacks balance.
Why not pledge to place 10,000 additional drug-treatment counselors in local communities? They might fight crime more effectively than additional prosecutors. But, of course, such a proposal lacks the requisite clang of a slamming cell door.
For that reason, you don't find Gore anywhere near an issue that weighs heavily on neighborhoods of color: the decimation of the communities the drug war is prompting by siphoning huge numbers of young men into prison.
The fear of crime rules the presidential campaign trail - that is, the fear politicians share of being depicted as soft on crime. That fear helps to explain why the United States ranks among the most punitive nations on earth. Only Russia locks up a larger share of its citizens. And, yes, nations about even with the U.S. in crime rates trail far behind in incarceration rates.
We stress punishing people at the expense of salvaging lives - thanks, in part, to presidential politics.
Gregory Stanford is a Journal Sentinel editorial writer and columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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