Clinton Delves Deeply Into the Crime Issue

President's approach balances prevention and punishment, but policy still doesn't match his `New Democrat' rhetoric

THE crime bill nearing passage on Capitol Hill would put 100,000 more police officers on the streets, stiffen sentences, ban some assault weapons, and impose a five-day waiting period on handgun purchases.

President Clinton supports these steps. But the president's own public ruminations on the crime issue go much further, take in much more of the social disorder in American cities, and appear to contain some of his most heartfelt and eloquent concerns.

He takes the crime conversation to root causes, including lack of jobs, but he also raises subjects that liberal Democrats once did not permit each other to raise - especially the crisis of family and values in the black community.

His concerns are not yet matched by a program to do something about it. But he says that key members of his Cabinet are working on a set of proposals, to emerge in coming weeks, designed to mount an assault on violence and to support family and community structures in areas where the problems are concentrated. The Memphis speech

In one of his more acclaimed speeches, Mr. Clinton told a group of black ministers in Memphis on Nov. 13: ``Unless we deal with the ravages of crime and drugs and violence, and unless we recognize that it's due to the breakdown of the family, the community, and the disappearance of jobs, and unless we say some of this cannot be done by government because we have to reach deep inside to the values, the spirit, the soul, and the truth of human nature, none of the other things we seek to do will ever take us where we need to go.''

Clinton's discussion of the root causes of crime differs from the ideas held by liberals a generation ago, because Clinton points not just to causes lodged outside the black community but also to problems among blacks. ``This is a `New Democrat' combination of personal responsibility and social responsibility,'' says Sheldon Danziger, a sociologist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Clinton's recent remarks on crime, Dr. Danziger says, represent ``a very thoughtful, balanced analysis of the academic research on urban poverty.

``These are consensus views these days,'' he adds, ``of a thoughtful spectrum that runs from left of the mainstream to right of the mainstream.''

``It's a sophisticated view that is a delight to see coming from a president,'' says Al Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

But it is also a sophistication unmatched by much clear thinking in Washington about action, notes Francis Hartmann, director of criminal justice policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. ``The health-care conversation is about a thousand times more intelligent than the conversation about crime.''

Public concern about crime, which dominated most of the mayoral elections held this month in cities around the country, vaulted to the forefront of national attention late this summer. The murder of foreign tourists in Florida appears to have snapped into focus a national discomfort over public safety and order.

Surveys by Public Opinion Strategies (POS), a Republican campaign polling firm, show that the proportion of people naming crime as the country's most important problem tripled between July and September - surpassing unemployment as the leading concern.

In fact, crime overall has been decreasing. The number of victimizations was 6 percent lower last year than 20 years ago, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. But violent crime has risen among teenagers, and the violent crime victimization rate for blacks in 1992 was the highest ever recorded.

In campaigns, POS strategists advise, the candidate who takes the most punitive approach wins on the crime issue every time.

Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank, says: ``Democratic administrations that can't restore some measure of order in the cities are going down'' to electoral defeat.

Mr. Marshall and other moderate Democrats expect that the crime issue will be closely tied to reform of the welfare system, because of crime's alleged roots in the welfare culture and single parenthood. Crime and no work

Clinton has not yet explicitly linked crime policy and the plans under way in his administration to reorient welfare toward job placement - the ``two years and out'' system he promised in his campaign. But he does link crime closely to the lack of stable families and lack of work.

``The president has always been focused on crime,'' White House pollster Stanley Greenberg said at a recent Monitor breakfast.

Clinton would return to the crime issue at the end of almost every speech he made as chairman of the centrist. Democratic Leadership Council. He would also often add passages on crime to speeches prepared for him during the campaign, says Dr. Greenberg.

Clinton's recent speech in Memphis ``was very much out of his soul and history,'' Greenberg concludes. His concerns reach beyond the current crime bill. ``His role is as moral leader, not just legislative leader.''

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