Tackling "The Myth That Democrats Are Soft on Crime," Newsweek's Ben Adler took to the magazine's The Gaggle blog to critique New York Times columnist Ross Douthat for his latest column.
Adler praised Douthat for saying that conservatives need to "take ownership of prison reform" to "correct the system they helped build" but took strong exception to his suggestion that, even so, Democrats "still lack credibility on crime policy."
As evidence for how Democrats are tough on crime, however, Adler pointed to gun control, Clinton's gimmicky COPS program, Waco, and the Elian Gonzales ordeal:
On what basis is Douthat asserting that Democrats lack credibility on crime policy? This phrase does not have one of the copious hyperlinks that Douthat uses to source many of his claims. Perhaps that's because public opinion polling is mixed, with some polling in recent elections suggesting that Democrats are as trusted on crime as Republicans.
And they should be. Many experts and laymen consider gun control, which Democrats generally support and Republicans generally oppose, to be an essential component of anti-crime policy. It was a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, with such congressional Democrats as Joe Biden, who passed the landmark crime bill of 1994 that put 100,000 more cops on America's streets. (Many conservatives opposed the bill on the grounds that it would cost too much.) Clinton's policy of triangulation, as Douthat surely must know, was largely about neutralizing the racially tinged fear of crime that led many suburban white voters to abandon the party of Roosevelt for the one of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. If there was one political credo Clinton and his generation of Democrats lived by, it was no more Willie Hortons, as epitomized by Clinton's decision as Arkansas governor to execute the developmentally disabled Ricky Ray Rector. Clinton's Justice Department faced its main opposition from the right, which complained that Attorney General Janet Reno was too heavy-handed in Waco, Texas, and with Elián Gonzáles. This tough-on-crime approach continues under President Obama, who nominated former prosecutor Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.
Of course Waco, gun control, and Gonzales all have in common the classic tension between enforcing the law and respecting the liberties enshrined in the Constitution.
Gonzales was a child who was returned by force to a dictatorship against his will, gun control by its very nature is restrictive on law-abiding citizens but not law-breaking criminals, and the Reno Justice Department's handling of Waco resulted in the loss of lives of innocent women and children literally caught in the crossfire. Far from being simple law-and-order bona fides for liberal Democrats, there are valid concerns in each of these about government overreach that harms the innocent and does little to punish the guilty.
And what of Clinton's cops on the street initiative? Well, none other than the left-leaning Slate magazine took a look in November 2001 at "How Clinton's plan to field 100,000 new police turned into a pork barrel as usual":
Lake Forest, Ill.; Beverly Hills, Calif.; Wellesley, Mass. What do these towns have in common? They're all affluent big-city suburbs with very little serious crime—islands of prosperous serenity in a dicey world. It would be hard to think of places in the United States that have a less urgent need to field more police officers. Yet one more thing these municipalities share is that in recent years, the federal government gave each of them money to do exactly that.
The funds come from what may have been Bill Clinton's most ballyhooed domestic program: Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, which he inaugurated in 1994 with a promise that, through federal grants for hiring recruits and buying equipment, it would put 100,000 new police on the streets. As crime rates declined during his time in office, he frequently claimed credit for COPS. In political terms, it was pure gold. By pushing the then old-fashioned conservative idea of cracking down on bad guys with armies of men in blue, Clinton did a huge amount to steal the law-and-order issue from Republicans. At the same time, he appealed to liberals with lots of syrupy rhetoric about "community policing," which emphasizes promoting good relations between cops and poor urban minorities—two groups that traditionally view each other with suspicion.
About one-third of the officers in the count, it should be noted, are not new cops but existing ones—who are theoretically freed from paper-pushing desk jobs to chase crooks, thanks to grants to buy computers and other new equipment. The reality doesn't always match the theory. A 1999 audit by the Justice Department's Inspector General reported "a high degree of difficulty in establishing that funds under the Making Office Redeployment Effective (MORE) program actually results in additional officers on the street. Specifically, 78 percent of the 67 grantees we audited with MORE grants could not demonstrate they had or would redeploy officers from administrative duties to the streets." The IG also found evidence that many police departments have no plans to retain new hires once their federal funding runs out. Barring an endless flow of money from Washington, then, the number of cops may fall.
Adler closed his blog by huffing that:
At some point, the outdated impression of Democrats, rather than just a small number of lefty activists, as being opposed to law and order has to catch up with the last 15 years of reality.
While it's fair to insist that not all Democrats can be fairly labeled "soft on crime," it is a political reality that each party tends to "own" certain issues and be considered weak on other issues in the public mindset.
For example, Democrats historically are seen in public opinion polls as "better" on education and health care, perhaps in large part because the liberal media helps along this meme, despite the fact that conservative Republicans have consistently offered charter schools, school choice, health savings accounts, and insurance reform ideas to the fore.
Of course, I'm not holding my breath for Adler to lament Republicans being unfairly stereotyped on traditional Democratic turf issues.