Few topics pop into a national political campaign more readily than crime. And few have less relevance to a president's day-to-day responsibilities.
The apprehension and punishment of muggers, murderers, or rapists is overwhelmingly a state and local matter. The federal government has a tangential role with its various anticrime agencies, like the FBI, or through law- enforcement assistance programs. But most of the money, manpower, and policy choices are made elsewhere.
That, of course, has never stopped presidential candidates from vowing to become the nation's top crime fighter. Bob Dole is busily doing so now, hoping to hone his tough image against a "liberal" Bill Clinton.
President Clinton, for his part, is anything but traditionally liberal in his own pronouncements on crime. He has been an avid backer of "three strikes, you're out" laws to imprison repeat offenders for life. And he supports the death penalty.
Then there's the longstanding Clinton promise of 100,000 additional cops on the beat. Mr. Dole recently charged that only "a fraction" have suited up. Clinton aides fumbled around a bit, but finally asserted that while 17,000 were actually on the job now, 43,000 are currently financed and all 100,000 are funded in the budget signed by the president.
We appreciate the clarification, if only because it relates to an actual federal program and an actual presidential promise. So much of what passes for debate on the crime issue relates more to fear-mongering and political labeling.
Crime remains a top public concern, and presidential aspirants will attempt to exploit it. The rest of us should keep in mind the gap between what they say about it and what they can do about it - and then urge the debate on to other issues: welfare reform, Medicare spending, or tax-structure changes, for instance, or maybe even foreign policy.