The Law And Order Democrats

The words almost sound as if they could have come from that master of law-and-order rhetoric, Richard M. Nixon. During the past month, President Clinton hasn't missed a chance to decry violent crime and to stump for legislation expanding the federal death penalty and funding more police. "Our people have the right to feel safe where they live, work, play, and go to school," Clinton said in an Oct. 9 radio address.

As fear of crime rises (chart), Democrats are refusing to let the Republicans clobber them on the issue. And the GOP is discovering that knee-jerk opposition to gun control is suddenly a liability. As a result, the politics of crime are dominant this fall. In gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia, candidates are out-toughing each other. And New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins, in a tight race with former GOP prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani, talks constantly about gun control and getting more cops on the street.

For years, Democrats have reflexively denounced GOP anticrime initiatives as thinly disguised racism. Their defensiveness hit its nadir in the 1988 Presidential campaign, when George Bush made furloughed rapist Willie Horton the GOP poster boy.

What has changed? Voter frustration is rising, and Americans want something--almost anything--to be done. "The public knows that prisons don't solve the crime problem," says University of California at Los Angeles criminologist James Q. Wilson. "But it knows that someone in prison won't be raping or robbing outside of prison." White middle-class fears have risen with every carjacking and drive-by shooting. But blacks, too, are demanding action against the tide of inner-city violence. A survey by Fabrizio & McLaughlin, a Republican polling firm, found that blacks favor the death penalty for murderers by a nearly 2-to-1 margin. "A lot of black neighborhoods would love to have 10 policemen on every street," says analyst David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political & Economic Studies, a Washington think tank.

HOGTIED. This attitudinal change frees Democrats to take the offensive--and lets Clinton strengthen his credentials as a moderate. "This is a new issue for the Democrats, but it's our people--working people--who are being hurt," says Paul E. Begala, an adviser to both Clinton and New Jersey Governor Jim Florio.

If Democrats were long paralyzed on crime by fears of black reaction, many Republicans are hogtied by opposition to gun control. A survey by Yankelovich Partners Inc. in August found that 65% of Americans want stricter controls on guns as part of any anticrime legislation. Anti-gun-control stances are hurting the GOP in New Jersey and Virginia. Florio, who won a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons, has Republican Christine Todd Whitman scrambling to defend her position that some firearms should be removed from the prohibited list. In the tight Virginia race, Democrat Mary Sue Terry has scored points by blasting opponent George F. Allen's opposition to a one-per-month limit on handgun purchases.

Elsewhere, Democratic governors are seizing the issue. Florida Governor Lawton Chiles, prodded by a tourist industry fearing catastrophe after the murders of foreign visitors, donned a bullet-proof vest to ride with the Miami police in September. The state legislature will consider a crackdown on guns and juvenile crime in a November special session. In Colorado, Democratic Governor Roy Romer, spurred by drive-by shootings in Denver during the summer, won passage of a measure requiring teenage felons to be jailed with adults.

PRISON POWER. The GOP isn't about to concede the issue. In Los Angeles, for example, Republican businessman Richard Riordan was elected mayor by promising that he was "Tough Enough to Turn L.A. Around." But Democratic inroads are worrisome. "If the Democrats can coopt the crime agenda, the Republicans will have lost a defining issue," says GOP consultant Jay Severin III. "You can't lose crime and the cold war and retain your identity."

The biggest danger is that Clinton will succeed in seizing the issue on the national level. When he headed the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, urged the party to move beyond searching for societal causes of crime--and to emphasize law enforcement instead. Although Attorney General Janet Reno favors concentrating on the "root causes" of crime, Clinton plans to get tough in a crime bill the Senate plans to take up this month. "Our message on crime is simple--more cops and fewer guns," says White House aide Bruce Reed.

The bill, similar to one vetoed last year by President Bush, who opposed its gun-control provisions, has broad bipartisan support. It would authorize $3.4 billion for 50,000 new police officers--a start on the 100,000 Clinton promised during the campaign. It would expand the number of federal crimes subject to the death penalty and limit appeals of state death sentences in federal courts. Clinton also supports a five-day waiting period on gun purchases and a ban on assault weapons.

For now, the Democrats' anticrime onslaught has put the GOP on the defensive. But in the longer run, Republicans aren't sure the offensive can succeed. "A Democrat talking about crime is like a eunuch talking about great sex," says Severin. "There's always a disparity between the rhetoric and their ability to produce." For now, the tough Democratic talk looks like a winner. But the GOP will be ready to make Clinton pay the price if his high-profile campaign doesn't make the streets any safer.

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