WASHINGTON. — Washington -- When Democrats prevailed in a weekend conference committee to bring out the strongest anti-crime package in 10 years, our crime-fighting president promptly said he would veto it if it reached his desk. Word went out to faithful Republicans: Call it a ''pro-crime bill'' -- but don't get tangled up in discussing its details.
This is precisely the political tactic used for many months against the 1991 civil-rights measure that finally became law: Call it a ''quota bill,'' milk it for every point in the opinion polls -- but don't be tempted into debate over the particulars, because then the world may find out what's really in the bill.
It was clear then that the president and his handlers wanted quotas as an election issue more than they wanted a civil-rights bill, and it's clear now that they want crime as an issue more than they want a bill to fight crime.
But in the civil-rights case, the public eventually saw through the White House tactic, and after changing a couple of commas, the president bowed and signed the bill. That is less likely to happen to the anti-crime package -- its passage by the House is uncertain at this writing, and there has not been enough time for grass-roots pressure on Congress to build, so a presidential veto would probably stick.
Whether the bill moves forward or not, the calculated demagoguery used against it foreshadows what the nation must expect as the presidential campaign is joined in the new year. Lee Atwater, the Republican chairman who specialized in ''wedge'' issues like race and crime, is gone. Before he died, he seemed to repent for some of the cynicism that was his trademark. But his spirit lives on.
The GOP's main purported reasons for opposing the crime bill are (1) it insufficiently restricts the right of prisoners to file habeas-corpus petitions, and (2) it too closely restricts court use of evidence improperly seized by police.
George Mitchell, the Senate Democratic leader, is hardly an unbiased witness in the matter, but as a former U.S. district judge, he is better equipped than most senators to analyze these objections.
He says the bill significantly limits the ability of prisoners to use repeated petitions to delay execution, for example. It imposes a one-time, one-year limit unless new facts or special conditions apply. And the bill codifies what the Reagan Supreme Court already has done to permit use of improperly seized evidence as long as police acted in ''good faith'' with a proper warrant.
The administration's first proposal, Mr. Mitchell says, ''for the first time in U.S. history, would have allowed secret trials. This section proved so embarrassing that Republicans in Congress didn't want to vote on it,'' so it was taken out early.
The president actually wants to extend the evidence provision to permit ''warrantless searches,'' he says. That would be ''a dramatic break with American tradition and history.''
The White House approach is designed to appeal to today's conservatives, Mr. Mitchell maintains, but it is ''the opposite of conservatism, which traditionally has been to protect the individual against the power of the state. The president's proposals are directly opposite that.''
Robert A. Taft, known as ''Mr. Republican'' in his time, ''would be turning over in his grave'' if he heard this Republican president's proposals for extending executive power at the expense of the Congress, says Mr. Mitchell.
The broad-ranging anti-crime package goes far beyond these provisions, and some of its major sections are straight in line with Mr. Bush's own requests. It would, for example, lengthen the list of capital crimes, authorizing the death penalty for espionage, treason, political assassination, fatal terrorist acts and large-scale drug trafficking.
But it also calls for a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases, to give police time to check criminal records. It would start a computerized program to run instant checks through state records. The waiting period is supported by most police officials, but not by the National Rifle Association and the firearms industry.
It's easy to believe White House pointing to the habeas-corpus ++ and improper-evidence sections is just camouflage, to cover the president's kowtowing to the gun lobby. He said in advance that he would consider a waiting period if the overall package included his other proposals.
So he is offered the strongest anti-crime bill in a decade, but says it ''would weaken our criminal justice system.'' As George Mitchell says, ''What happened in the '88 campaign is just a poll away.''
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.