'Red meat' makes political debates a bit more savory

Because political campaigns have become a form of public entertainment, I knew it would not be long until we got to the red meat.

Red meat is what you toss to the lions to get them excited. And in a nationally televised debate in New Hampshire on Sunday, red meat was tossed at the Democratic candidates for president.


But this red meat was meant to excite us, the voters.

Cokie Roberts of ABC News was the moderator. She asked a question about "the rape of an 11-year-old boy at 8 o'clock in the morning on his way to school. The alleged assailant was on parole from robbery and sodomy convictions. It has been determined that he has AIDS. Should that person have been paroled?"


I am trying to think of how one could have answered Roberts' question other than with the obvious: "No, you dimwit. Next question."

One could answer honestly, of course: "Cokie, as you know, neither robbery nor sodomy are federal crimes. The presidency, as you also know, is a federal office. And it is highly unlikely a president is going to be able to change the parole laws in each of the 50 states or even waste his time trying."

Or one could challenge one premise of the question: "What are you suggesting, Cokie? That people with AIDS never be paroled from prison? Do you think that's fair? What if the person got AIDS by being raped in prison? Does that mean he should be kept in prison for life? Is that justice?"

Or one could try the practical approach: "Our prisons are overcrowded and it is a practical impossibility to keep every person in prison to the end of his sentence. Since there are no absolutely reliable ways to predict whether a person will be violent if released, we struggle along as best we can with the imperfect system we have. It is easy to excite the public with cases such as the one you mention, Cokie, but I would be less than honest if I did not point out the practical barriers to ending parole in this country."

None of the candidates gave these answers or anything like them. And I do not blame them. To be honest, practical or challenging in a presidential debate is to be suicidal.

Ever since Bernie Shaw asked his red meat question of Michael Dukakis in 1988 -- he asked Dukakis if he would favor the death penalty for the imaginary rapist and murderer of his wife -- candidates have learned how not to answer such questions.

Dukakis gave an honest answer -- he opposes the death penalty -- and was immediately savaged by the press and public for being "unemotional."

What Dukakis should have said was: "Bernie, you wouldn't have to worry about giving this guy the chair. Because I'd hit him so hard that when he woke up his clothes would be out of style. Then I'd rip his arms and legs off and beat his head into his chest with them. I'd kill the sumbitch with my bare hands, Bernie. I swear to God. And that's the kind of president I think America deserves!"


You can take that as satire. But if Mike Dukakis had actually given that answer, I believe he would have gained votes.

In any case, no candidate this time around is going to make the mistake of wimping out when it comes to criminals.

As it turned out, Cokie Roberts' question on parole elicited the startling news that the Democratic presidential candidates have highly limited sympathy for convicted robber/sodomists with AIDS.

Bob Kerrey said he would not have paroled the guy and added "politicians take the side of criminals too quickly." Then, even though he had not been asked about it, he informed everyone that he was in favor of the "ultimate penalty of death for particularly egregious crimes."

Paul Tsongas said he would not parole the guy, either, and then spun off into the favorite crime issue of all for candidates: drugs. "Most of the increase in crime in this country comes from the surge of drugs that's penetrating our society," he said.

Tom Harkin, who also wouldn't parole the guy, said of the "33 percent increase in crime under the Reagan and Bush administration, over half of that is due to drugs."


Well, maybe. But the crime that is really exploding in America -- murder -- is due more to something the Democrats don't like to talk about in New Hampshire (and were not asked about), which is guns.

As Lawrence Sherman, president of the Crime Control Institute told the Washington Post last month, the easy availability of semiautomatic weapons is, even more than drugs, the principal reason for the rise of murders in America.

And, unlike drugs, which are used up by the consumer, guns stay around. "Absent massive programs for seizing illegal weapons or an effective buy-back, I don't see any way we can get the number of guns down," Sherman said. "And that means we can't get the number of homicides down."

But Democrats don't like to talk about guns in New Hampshire because guns are popular in New Hampshire. So it is much safer to talk about drugs.

And Tsongas, who is no dummy no matter what he sounds like on TV, managed to neatly combine two popular issues: drugs and execution.

"I am in favor of capital punishment for crimes against society," he said. "To me, that definition are large-scale drug dealers."


This raises an immediate Constitutional problem. The Supreme Court, in ruling out the death penalty for rape, seems to have ruled it out for any crime in which a life is not taken.

But campaigns are not about the Constitution or even about practical solutions to real problems (the real problem is locating, arresting and convicting drug kingpins, let alone executing them.)

Campaigns are increasingly about red meat.

So catch the campaign when it comes to your town.

And listen to the roar.