Law and order was a powerful refrain for Republican Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential campaign, and again for George Bush two decades later. But Bob Dole can’t bank on party tradition as he tries to use the crime issue against President Clinton.
Mindful of the Democratic Party’s painful lessons in crime politics, Clinton has spent much of his first term trying to neutralize the longstanding Republican advantage on the issue.
Monday’s timely endorsement by the national Fraternal Order of Police was one sign of that. The nation’s largest police organization backed Bush over Clinton four years ago, but the Democratic incumbent basked in a sea of blue uniforms this time in Cincinnati, just as Dole tried to push the crime and drugs issue to the forefront of the campaign.
“We have a straightforward approach: more police on the street, guns and drugs off the street,” Clinton said earlier Monday at a White House ceremony, where he joined Attorney General Janet Reno in claiming credit in the war on crime and in rattling off a string of statistics he said proved his point.
Begging to differ, Dole argues that rather than fight, Clinton has surrendered, particularly in the war on drugs. And on this latter point, he has statistics of his own: Clinton shrunk the staff of the drug policy director’s office, and the president’s own administration recently reported alarming increases in drug use among 12- to 17-year olds.
Dole says this is no accident, and his television ads will soon feature some powerful footage to help make the point: video of Clinton laughing on MTV when asked if he would inhale marijuana if given the chance to relive his college years. “Sure, if I could,” Clinton said.
It is a startling image Dole hopes will shake up the race, one aimed at eroding Clinton’s support among the suburban parents that Dole must win over if he is defeat Clinton.
“I will make the moral issue clear,” Dole said Monday in Pennsylvania as he pledged to cut drug use at least in half if elected and to double federal funding for prison construction. “There is right and there is wrong, and drug use is wrong.”
This was the opening foray in a new Dole effort to focus voter attention on what he considers America’s moral decline. There is plenty of evidence to suggest voters share his concern, but little to suggest they blame Clinton.
An ABC News-Washington Post poll earlier this month, for example, showed Clinton with a narrow 46 percent to 40 percent edge when voters were asked which presidential candidate they trusted more to fight crime. The numbers are testament to Clinton’s task in escaping his party’s past - not only on crime but on welfare and other so-called “wedge issues” used by Republicans in past national elections.
During the 1992 campaign, Clinton returned home to Arkansas to sign execution papers for a convicted murderer - and overcame opposition from liberals to put the Democratic Party on the record in favor of capital punishment.
“I think they got the message of the Dukakis campaign - you can’t be seen as soft on crime,” said Andy Kohut, polling director for the independent Pew Research Center.
As president, Clinton overcame Republicans and the National Rifle Association opposition to pass two major gun-control measures, one banning certain assault-style weapons, the other requiring a waiting period for handgun purchases.
These laws are popular among working women and suburban moderates, perhaps the two most critical constituencies in the presidential election. And for all the NRA promises of retribution, a recent Los Angeles Times poll showed Clinton leading Dole among gun owners.
As Dole tries to turn the crime issue in his favor, he is turning to the familiar liberal vs. conservative rhetoric of Republican campaigns past.
Speaking at Villanova University, Dole said Monday: “From packing the federal court with ideological liberals to running up the white flag in the war on drugs to taking a goeasy approach in prosecuting criminals, this administration’s crime policies can be summed up in the phrase, ‘Speak loudly but carry a small stick,’ or probably no stick at all.”
There is no shortage of public anxiety. In a recent Pew Center survey, crime, drugs and gang violence were cited most when respondents were asked to list their top worry.
But as Dole tries to convince voters he would be tougher on crime, he must also persuade them to make the issue a presidential campaign priority.
In that same Pew survey, taxes, health care, the economy, welfare reform, balancing the budget and jobs all ranked ahead of crime when respondents were asked what issues they wanted presidential candidates to discuss.
“Even though people are concerned about crime, they don’t think there are significant distinctions between these candidates,” said Kohut.
“Crime has historically been a great theme for Republicans and a weak one for the Democrats but that is no longer the case,” he said.