- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2000

Have you ever suddenly noticed that something is missing, but you were not sure exactly when it disappeared? That happened to me this week. I was making my routine check of the George W. Bush Web site and, per chance, decided to see what he was saying about crime. I clicked on "issues" and started to scroll. The topics, in alphabetical order, went from campaign finance to defense: "Crime" was missing. Curious, I checked Sen. John McCain's site. His issues scrolled from campaign finance to education. Once again, "crime" was missing.

Then I checked Sen. Bill Bradley's site. His went from child poverty to education (just like a liberal to deal with the social causes of crime, but not the social consequences of the criminal). Finally, I went to "Al Gore on the Issues," in which crime also was missing (although a further search found three sentences on crime buried in his long "agenda" section).

It is not surprising to see Democrats discreetly slipping past the issue of crime, but I would guess that the last time crime was not a prominent issue for a Republican presidential candidate was probably Richard Nixon in 1960. But, of course, back then, a kid could leave his bike unlocked outside the movie theater and find it waiting for him when he came out.

While it's true that last month I argued, in this space, that Republicans could not continue to run on all of Ronald Reagan's issues from 1980, I did not envision totally dropping the crime issue although some people seem ready to make such a tactical move. Bill Kristol, one of the most thoughtful conservatives calling for a changed agenda, last week put crime in the same set of happily obsolete issues as busing and the Soviet Union.

Certainly, local television news shows, the most maniacally rating-conscious entities on the planet, continue to heavily report crime, allowing their cameras to linger adoringly over the scenes of recent rapes, murders and abductions.

If the local TV news executives were willing to bet their leased Mercedes and homes in Potomac on the continuing viability of the crime issue, that's scientific enough for me.

But for the professionally skeptical among you, a review of recent polling data confirms the killer instincts of the TV executives. A January Newsweek poll specifically on issues very "important to you in deciding which presidential candidate to support" rates crime third out of 14 issues, with 75 percent identifying crime. Interestingly, "guns and violence" a separate issue ranked seventh, at 65 percent.

A Pew Research Center poll from last July, rating the public's priority for national issues, found crime to be No. 1, at 76 percent. In that poll, gun-control laws rated 12th, at 51 percent. The Harris Poll, which historically seems to tilt leftward in its results, has on a monthly basis asked the public to rate the most important issues facing government. Last August, crime came in second, 1 percent behind education. But in its February poll, crime had slipped to fifth, behind education, taxes, health care and Social Security. I doubt it is a coincidence that the four topics that inched ahead of crime were main topics of debate in the presidential primaries.

The lesson that ought to be learned by the Republicans from the Harris Poll is that the more an issue with some underlying public interest is discussed, the more likely it is to become prominent. One of the dangers facing the Republican Party this election particularly at the presidential level is that the Democrats will succeed at supplanting the crime issue with the issue of gun control.

As the other polling suggests, while the public cares about gun control, it cares about crime more. But when there is shooting in the news, the Republicans are often silent on the crime issue, while the Democrats happily call for unconstitutional and pointless new anti-gun measures. The Republicans and Democrats were at their, respectively, timorous and fatuous worst last week in responding to the pitiable shooting of the 6-year-old girl by a boy in her class.

Obviously, with the boy's mother a dope fiend, his father a jail bird and his uncle with whom he lived in a crack house trading guns for drugs, only a lunatic or a liberal would have any expectation that such a deranged crowd would voluntarily honor a safety-trigger lock law. That's like suggesting that Hitler would have gone quietly if Poland had only arrested him for trespassing in 1939. If Republicans can't turn a crack house into a crime scene, they are not likely to turn the White House into an official residence.

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