WASHINGTON -- Better late than never, President Clinton is now trying to tap into an issue threatening to dominate political debate through the rest of the 1993 campaign and into 1994 -- crime in the streets.
The political volatility of the crime issue is abundantly clear in major city mayoral election campaigns and in the two contests for governor this year in New Jersey and Virginia.
Gov. Jim Florio, the embattled Democrat seeking a second term in New Jersey, has used his demand for gun control to broaden his appeal to more liberal voters who still may not have forgiven him for the huge tax program he promulgated his first year in office.
In Virginia the faltering Democratic candidate, former Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, also is using the gun issue. The message in both races is that it is no longer necessary for Democrats to fear the National Rifle Association.
The crime issue -- along with the condition of the economy -- was a critical one for Republican Richard Riordan in winning election as mayor of Los Angeles earlier this year. And it has given impetus to the challenge Republican Rudolph Giuliani is making to Mayor David Dinkins in New York.
By contrast, although he has had a crime program on the table for months, the president has not taken the lead in pushing it, obviously because of a concern that adding other issues into the national debate can divert attention from his emphasis on his first priority of reforming the health-care system.
Last weekend, however, Clinton found a formula -- linking violent crime to health care by depicting both issues as threats to the "personal security" of Americans. "Violent crime crowds our emergency rooms and drains our medical resources," he said, "and it is siphoning away our humanity."
The issue traditionally has been an awkward one for Democrats because of liberal opposition to capital punishment and tough measures that might appear to infringe on civil liberties. The result is that the Republicans have had more than a little success depicting the Democrats as "soft on crime."
That was the message as far back as 1968 when Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon campaigned against the liberal Hubert H. Humphrey as an advocate of "restoring the balance between the peace forces and the criminal forces" in American society. And it clearly was the message in candidate George Bush's success in exploiting the Willie Horton episode against Democratic nominee Michael S. Dukakis in 1988.
But the world has turned a few times. In Clinton, the Democrats now have nominated and elected a president who supports the death penalty. And all over the country the Democrats have candidates discovering that talking tough about gun control is a winner.
There are, of course, limits on how much a president or the federal government can accomplish on crime, compared with mayors and governors who have direct control of police forces and the opportunity to improve their criminal justice systems and courts. But, as Clinton has proposed, the feds can make a difference by passing gun control and by providing money for more police and such innovations as "boot camps" for young offenders.
There are some tricky political currents to navigate, however. Many members of Congress in both parties are still spooked by the NRA, despite the evidence provided last year by Rep. Mike Synar, for example, that the gun lobby can be defied even in a state as conservative as Oklahoma.
There is also an underlying racial issue. Although blacks are most often victims of crime and, polls show, deeply concerned about the crime question, some black political leaders are touchy about anything they might see as targeted at blacks as a group. On the other side, there are white voters in major cities who see Democrats as too hesitant to confront the realities of the crime crisis because of their concern about black constituencies.
The bottom line, nonetheless, is that street crime is one of those issues that has boiled up from the grass roots. President Clinton might prefer to remain narrowly focused on health-care reform, but it is a luxury he cannot afford when the streets are widely perceived as unsafe by so many Americans.