Crime and Politics

August 19, 1994

Passion, principle and politics are engulfing the Clinton crime bill in its turbulent journey through congressional rapids. And the greatest of these is politics. Yes, there are members of the Black Caucus who detest the death penalty and cannot abide legislation that expands its reach in federal law while offering no protection against racially biased sentencing. Yes, there are lawmakers fiercely vehement in the cause of outlawing or allowing possession of assault weapons. But for the most part, the struggle in Washington is about the November elections, the survival of incumbents and the viability of the Clinton presidency.

Whether a billion here or a billion there goes to midnight basketball or more cops will have no real impact on crime in America. Whether the federal death penalty is expanded has little relation to its much greater application in state and local jurisprudence. Even the incendiary issue of assault weapons is but part of an interminable debate over the wisdom of having a vast armed citizenry.

Crime legislation has now superseded even health care reform as Washington's current obsession because the pollsters have been telling the politicians that this is an issue not to be ignored just before an election. As Maryland voters know only too well, crime-fighting is a hobby-horse for every political aspirant in the land.

In his heart of hearts, which includes Hillary Rodham Clinton, President Clinton's No. 1 objective remains reform of the nation's medical system. But because he was sandbagged last week on crime by House rejection of a routine procedural action to bring legislation to the floor, Mr. Clinton is now spending almost full time (and a lot of political capital) to recover his footing.

Near-solid Republican opposition could have been anticipated as the GOP tries to preen itself as tough, tougher and toughest on crime. No bill with Democratic fingerprints could ever be enough for Newt Gingrich & Co. But what clobbered the president, inciting speculation that he is terminally on the ropes, was the desertion of 58 Democrats -- ten of them African-Americans and the rest NRA white conservatives.

Never fear, something will be enacted. The end result will be a bill with greater emphasis on law enforcement and less on social welfare attempts to discourage criminal behavior. Congressional incumbents, Democrats and Republicans alike, will not unilaterally disarm themselves by blocking crime legislation when they know there are challengers back home just itching to mug them on this vote-rich issue.

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