Whatever Happened to the Law and Order Issue?

In the weeks since Americans elected Barack Obama president, conservatives have had a lot to say to one another about the future of our movement and of the Republican Party. While not disparaging the importance of other lessons, I'd like to bring up two points many have missed.

(1) The Democrats' triumph demonstrates the error of Republicans trying to win elections without focusing on crime, punishment and the restoration of law and order.

(2) It also shows the inadequacy of the GOP's strategy of countering liberal judicial activism solely by promising to appoint only "strict constructionists" to the federal bench.

Let's recall that 20 years ago last summer, George H.W. Bush -- a weak candidate with shaky conservative credentials and no political charisma -- was way behind Michael Dukakis in the polls. Yet that November, Dukakis lost in a landslide. What had turned it around for Bush? In a word, crime. A focus on prison furloughs, revolving-door justice, and the death penalty killed Dukakis's candidacy.

Unfortunately, no decisive action against crime flowed from that -- an omission for which Republicans would soon pay dearly. Bush would be a one-term president; his eviction from the White House was followed by another humiliating GOP defeat in 1996; then came two squeaker wins for son W., and finally this year's shambles. Does anyone still remember how the Republicans once had an "electoral lock" on the presidency?

Many believe Bush lost his re-election bid because he had broken his "No New Taxes" pledge. Only partly true. Crime had figured much more prominently in Dukakis's defeat than tax policy did, and no wonder. The great wave of violence that had erupted in the 1960s was surging still. Per-capita rates of major crimes were two, three, four and even five times what they had been within the memory of most voters. Yet after receiving the most emphatic mandate a president has ever had regarding crime and punishment, Bush did next to nothing about it. When he was turned out of office, America's Great Crime Wave was at its crest. Failure to deliver results on crime, more than anything else, is why Bush lost. Failure even to talk about crime is a big reason the GOP has been treading water ever since.

How would this year's race have played out, had Republicans been paying attention to crime?

To start with, they could have made sure everyone understood that the crime rates we know today are not normal. Even after receding from its crest of the early 1990s, crime remains, per capita, more than twice what it was in 1960. The only major crime that's anywhere near returning to "normal" is murder, and that's only because emergency medical teams are better at saving trauma victims' lives now than they were back then. Each victim saved turns a murder into an aggravated assault; hence, aggravated assault remains more than three times its 1960 rate. Americans continue to suffer murderous attacks far more frequently than we did two generations ago.

Had the GOP been thinking about crime, when New Jersey's Democrats abolished that state's death penalty last December, Republicans nationwide could have pounced. They could have called it a throwback to Dukakis-era softness on crime, and they could have made particular mention of the accumulating evidence that capital punishment is a strong deterrent when executions are actually carried out. Republicans could have hammered home the awful truth: The lives of future murder victims are thrown away each time a convicted murderer is not put to death, and this adds up to thousands upon thousands of innocent Americans killed in preventable slayings, year after year.

Had the GOP been thinking about crime, when Obama's rabid pastor Jeremiah Wright popped up, Republicans could have focused on the parts of the good reverend's sermons that touched on law enforcement. Wright had bellowed: "The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and wants them to sing ‘God Bless America.' No! No! No! Not God bless America! God damn America!" People were so shocked by the last part of the utterance that they neglected to attend to what led up to it. Had Republicans been thinking about crime, they could have pressed Obama to explain whether he agrees with Wright's opposition to bigger prisons and three-strike laws.

Likewise, GOP criticism of Obama's radical colleague Bill Ayers could have emphasized, not the bombings from long ago, but the more recent -- and more destructive -- activities that brought these two left-wingers together. The Ayers book Obama praised was a soft-on-crime book; the conference on its themes, in which Ayers and Obama joined, was a soft-on-crime exercise; Obama's work as an Illinois legislator was aimed at thwarting the tough-on-crime efforts of what he derided as the "industrial prison complex." In short, Obama and Ayers were running interference for the Great Crime Wave. Obama's rivals should have made him answer for that.

When Chicago's surging murder rate made the news last summer, Republicans who were thinking about crime could have pointed out that the state of Illinois has not executed anyone since 1999. They could have noted that in Texas -- notorious as the nation's execution capital --murder has been cut by almost two-thirds. They could have asked Obama if he prefers the results of his state's feckless hesitancy on capital punishment to the Texans' manifest success with it.

When in June the Supreme Court disallowed the death penalty for child rapists, Obama was savvy enough to join his Republican rival John McCain in criticizing the ruling. One notices, however, that McCain's model justices Roberts and Alito voted against that decision and Obama's model justice Ginsburg voted for it. McCain in one speech did point out that little fact. But did he make it a theme of the fall campaign? Not at all.

Even with the election just weeks away, events continued to beg for a renewed focus on crime. In October, a Marine sergeant and his wife were bound, gagged, tortured and shot to death in their California home. Actress Jennifer Hudson's mother and brother were slain in their home in Obama's crime-ridden Chicago. A popular TV anchorwoman was beaten to death in her home in Little Rock, Arkansas. From the GOP, not a word.

Had Republicans been pounding the "law and order" drum all along, the Age of Obama would not be dawning now. For one thing, Hillary Clinton surely would have picked up on this most potent of all blue-collar issues. A "law and order" Hillary very likely would have gained the nomination while her fellow Democrats recoiled from Obama as another soft-on-crime Dukakis.

It then would have fallen to the Republicans to point out that should she become president, Hillary Clinton's appointments to the Supreme Court -- where policy on key law enforcement issues is ultimately decided -- would be every bit as soft on crime as Obama's would have been, as Dukakis's would have been, and as her own husband's indeed have been. And that brings us to my second point.

The Supreme Court is not where policy on key law enforcement issues is supposed to be decided. And if the experience of the past several decades teaches us anything, it's that nominating the "right" justices to that Court is simply not enough to set things right.

Karl Spence is a journalist living in San Antonio.
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