President Clinton's State of the Union remarks on crime sound familiar? They should. In his New York State of the State address this month, Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo, who is running for re-election, sounded so conservative on crime (also on welfare and taxes) that the Republican leader in the New York Senate said, "It sounds like a speech that could have been written for me." New York City's new Republican mayor, former crime-buster Rudolph Giuliani, said he could conceivably endorse Governor Cuomo.
Central to Governor Cuomo's new get-tough politics is his proposal on violent criminals: Three strikes and you're out. (Ditto President Clinton.) Anyone convicted of a third violent crime would get life in prison without possibility of parole. Tough as that sounds, the liberal (ex-liberal?) governor is a little behind the curve. Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, a Clinton Democrat, proposed the same week that a second violent crime be punished by life without parole. Everybody "deserves a second chance," he said, "but a third chance to kill or rape or commit armed robbery is a completely different matter."
You think that's tough? California Gov. Pete Wilson, a conservative Republican, said in his 1994 State of the State address that for some vicious criminals, "three strikes is two too many." With Polly Klaas' parents in the audience, Governor Wilson said that some rapists and child molesters should get life without parole on the first conviction. A possible Wilson opponent, State Treasurer Kathleen Brown, whose bona fides as an old fashioned liberal Democrat are as good as Mario Cuomo's, attacked Governor Wilson with this play on Ronald Reagan's famous line: "Just ask yourself, do you feel safer than you did three years ago?" She proposed mandatory sentences for some first time offenders and a statewide system of boot camps.
This is going on all over the country. Florida State Treasurer Tom Gallagher (R), a probable gubernatorial candidate, wants to add a penny to the sales tax to build prison space for 40,000 more inmates. Ohio's Gov. George Voinovich, who is up for re-election this year, said in his State of the State that he wants more and quicker executions. About the most liberal crime plank in a gubernatorial platform to date is Texas Gov. Ann Richards' parole proposal. She wants 600 to 1,000 more police officers to monitor parolees: "You're either going to have a clean parolee or you're going to have a convict back in jail."
The political focus on crimes of violence is inevitable. Crime is destroying too many individuals and communities. Something must be done. But we would hate to see the rhetoric and the bidding wars escalate beyond the realistic. Just as some liberals over-sold the effectiveness of the social-worker approach to dealing with crime ("root causes"), so the law-and-order crowd could over-sell the effectiveness of the sheriff approach.