Clinton Will Be Judeged on Crime Rates

BEN WATTENBERG

April 26, 1993|By BEN WATTENBERG

Washington. -- Crime Time: tension about riots in Los Angeles; a drive-by killer in Washington; a prison revolt in Ohio; a loco in Waco; terror bombing in New York. And on an average day, 70 homicides. It's America's biggest problem.

Are the rates for crimes of violence going up? Some of the data are ambiguous, but mostly the answer is yes. Three items are not ambiguous: The violent crime rate is obscenely high, the fear rate is way up, and so are tensions between blacks and whites.

We have a new president with a fistful of remedies for crime: ''community policing,'' 100,000 more police, a ''Police Corps,'' ''boot camps'' for first-time non-violent offenders, more drug rehabilitation, a gun-control law, a ''safe schools'' proposal, $2.5 billion more for federal crime programs in the next budget cycle, the ''Community Partnership Against Crime,'' and so on.

In some large measure it should be crime, and the social issues like it (welfare for example), by which we judge President Clinton. Those are the items that allowed him to portray himself as a ''different Democrat,'' and made him a winner.

So how shall we evaluate Mr. Clinton on this issue? Four ways come to mind:

(1) Can he enact what he says he wants to enact? It's expensive: 100,000 more cops, whose total costs run about $100,000 per year each, equals $10 billion every year.

(2) Would the programs work? The ideas sound nice. Prof. James Q. Wilson of UCLA -- America's leading thinker on crime, and no Clinton booster -- believes the 100,000 more cops and the community-policing ideas are solid.

If he thinks so, so do I. But by 1996, the evidence should be apparent on the street. Maybe the emphasis should have been on still-more prisons and still-longer sentences.

(3) Does Mr. Clinton get the rhetoric right? Presidential words can count as much as programs. Voters want to know: ''Does he see the world the way we do?''

There are two ways of describing the nature of the crime situation. The first (standard liberal) is that crime mostly comes from ''root causes'' (like poverty). Therefore, the principal solutions run to job training, moving jobs, education and subsidized housing.

The second view is that the appalling criminality has come mostly from a moral breakdown, in part brought about by governmental soft-headedness. That's what is eroding the cities of America.

Public policy should be a blend of the two points of view. I believe the second view is more accurate, and it is certainly more popular in America. This is so among the ''Reagan Democrats'' who gave Clinton his victory, and whose votes he needs in 1996, and also among many who live in or near the combat zones.

Americans want to hear that their president has his priorities straight between the two points of view. Rhetoric yields reality: Will he spend the $10 billion on more cops or on more food stamps?

So far, Mr. Clinton has come down firmly on both sides.

(4) And there is an emotional test. The crime numbers are hard to work with. It's not like measuring the rate of economic growth. We don't need a statistical argument. The country is scared. There is a gauge available.

In a 1980 presidential debate, Ronald Reagan asked Americans to make a judgment based on economic experience: ''Are you better off today than you were four years ago?'' The voters knew, even if the statisticians could argue about it.

In 1996, Bill Clinton's opponent will ask the people: ''Are you safer than you were four years ago?''

The answer will be the sum of what Mr. Clinton and his band of busy beavers can do, and say, in the next few years. It's the right test.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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