The latest CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll (March 5-7, 2004) shows that if the general election were held today, Senator John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, would win the popular vote by a narrow margin. Between now and November, however, the Bush campaign could easily surge ahead with the help of one issue: national security. Even if the economy continues to stagnate and the health care becomes even more unaffordable, John Kerry cannot win without revitalizing the Democratic Party’s national security platform. Certainly, this means articulating foreign policy and priorities for national defense, but crime policy is national security, too. Kerry must remember that public safety begins in our neighborhoods, towns and cities. Crime happens every day, and the 1988 presidential election showed that a Democratic candidate needs a strong, uncompromising anti-crime message to win.
John Kerry has already taken the defense rhetorically on crime; he is determined to avoid the soft-on-crime label. He must go on the offensive, however, if he wants to win. He should actually articulate the Democratic agenda on crime. Republicans would argue that long prison terms and the death penalty are the best answers to crime. In 1988, Republican presidential candidate George H. W. Bush successfully pinned Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis as a weak, liberal extremist through his Willie Horton television ad, which slammed Dukakis for his opposition to the death penalty and his support of weekend furloughs for incarcerated criminals.
Given John Kerry’s background, the Bush campaign will surely try to frame Kerry as a disciple of Dukakis, a soft-on-crime Massachusetts liberal. The Republican policy of being “tough on crime” means harsh sentences and high incarceration rates is a failure, though. The U.S. criminal justice system has been remarkably harsh, with little to show for it, and if a candidate urges reform people will surely listen.
Kerry should employ an honest and effective anti-crime strategy and attack the roots of crime: poverty, unemployment and a failing education system. After all, property crimes account for about 90 percent of the crime rate. Linking economic stewardship and education policy with anti-crime policy in the debates could benefit Democrats enormously; economic issues will be front and center, and good economics is good crime policy. Increased education spending, an income tax hike on millionaires, and tax breaks for small businesses and the middle and lower income Americans will put people to work, strengthen families, and cut crime. Much of the drop in violent crime that occurred in the late 1990s is due to the record economic growth of that era, not to high incarceration rates. Building more prisons will cost taxpayers millions and may actually worsen crime. Recidivism is incredibly widespread; more than 70 percent of the inmates in the nation’s prisons or jails are repeat offenders.
The rhetorical possibilities abound for the Democratic candidate. Kerry might ask: should the taxpayers’ hard-earned money be spent on new schools or new prisons? Republicans talk of overcapacity in prisons and getting “tough on crime,” but what about overcapacity in our schools? A candidate can frame the debate as one of governmental efficiency, and thereby co-opt another traditional Republican issue. A 1998 report from the Rand Corporation, entitled “Investing in Our Children: What We Know and Don’t Know about the Costs and Benefits of Early Childhood Interventions,” concluded that investing in early childhood programs like Head Start can save taxpayer money in the form of lower welfare payments, lower prison costs, and higher income tax revenues. The study found that “at age 27, those who participated [in Head Start programs as children] had lower arrest rates, higher education rates, earned more money, were more likely to be homeowners and less likely to receive social services.” More spending on school maintenance, teacher pay and Head Start will go a long way to cutting the prison population and reducing crime.
The Democratic message is a familiar one: increasing education spending, middle-class tax breaks and fully funding Head Start. The twist is that it works in the context of crime policy too; Kerry can and should talk economics and national security at the same time. He can both win votes from the vast swath of Americans who support a populist, traditional Democratic message, and appeal to swing voters — the white working class, for instance — who abandoned Al Gore in 2000 over character concerns. Post-election 2000 analysis done by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg demonstrates that voters’ opposition to Gore stemmed mainly from concerns over his moral values, whereas voters’ support for his candidacy was based on his populist, traditional Democratic message.
It takes a bold Democrat to stand up and reaffirm the Party’s bedrock ideals. Bill Clinton did the impossible; he made crime policy a winning issue in 1992 and 1996. But he did so by embracing Republican values. Campaigning on a conventional “tough on crime” message is the easy way out; it has put Republicans in office for decades. Moreover, in the long term Clinton’s triangulation divided his party and hurt his country. The Democratic Party today is a coalition of interest groups with many voices and missions, coasting on the Clinton economic legacy. A party with no platform deserves to lose. If John Kerry resolves to reclaim his party’s best ideas and traditions, however, he will leave a proud legacy: a safer country, foremost; victory in November; and a distinct anti-crime platform that future Democratic candidates can run on. Let’s hope Kerry is up to the task.
John Coggin is a junior in Silliman College.