WASHINGTON -- Every four years, the national Democratic Party has tried like the devil to convince Americans that they shouldn't pay too much attention to violent crime in electing a president.
Crime really isn't getting worse, they'd tell voters. It's not a federal issue anyway, they'd add, and Republicans who try to make it one are making a racist appeal for votes.
By and large, Americans didn't agree. They knew crime was getting worse, believed it was a national issue, figured they could talk about crime without being racist -- and tended to vote accordingly.
Nevertheless, the 1992 election hinged on the economy rather than crime. Once in office, however, President Clinton -- and other Democratic politicians from coast to coast -- learned that crime remained a powerful, and increasingly visible, issue among a frightened electorate.
And as the ruling Democrats attempt to tackle crime, many are still uncomfortable with this huge and complicated issue -- and that there is nothing approaching a coherent, consistent Democratic Party solution for making the nation safer.
"The Democrats zig and zag on crime," said Fred Siegel, a history professor at Cooper Union University in New York. "They don't really have a philosophy."
This morning, in an effort to formulate a consistent approach to crime, the president is meeting with Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and other urban leaders and police chiefs at the White House to discuss the issue.
Mr. Schmoke, who advocates decriminalizing the narcotics trade as a way of getting a handle on urban crime gangs, is an example of how much the debate on crime has evolved within the Democratic Party.
Too often, the party's impulse is to politicize crime, say critics like Mr. Siegel. As an example, he points to Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who a few years ago embraced a controversial concept of death penalty racial quotas. Under such a plan, the number of African-Americans condemned to death row could not exceed their overall numbers in the population.
This year, however, with the public clamoring for action, Senator Biden signed off on a new federal law that expands the federal death penalty to 52 new categories of murder, including the killing of a federal poultry inspector.
"Liberals know they blew it on this," said Joel Kotkin, a fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute, a moderate Democratic think tank. "People are sick of crime and they think Democrats temporize too much."
Historically, the dominant liberal wing of the Democratic Party has consistently favored only one concrete anti-crime measure -- gun control. The rest of the Democrats' traditional solution ran toward vague calls to combat crime's "root causes" with anti-poverty programs.
Upholding this traditional view are such Democrats as Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and Rep. Craig A. Washington of Texas, both members of the House Judiciary Committee.
Noting that the U.S. prison population has nearly tripled in the past 12 years, without a drop in crime, they say that get-tough approaches to law and order are futile.
"Why has this approach failed?" they asked in a letter to their colleagues. "Because too many of the urban poor have no jobs and no hope for the future . . ."
This expression, "no hope," is one that liberals repeat, almost as a mantra, but while the bleakness of life in a neighborhood with no jobs is undeniable, many Democrats, even long-time liberals, are questioning whether such conditions really explain the kind of violence plaguing the nation.
"I'm sick and tired of people saying they don't have jobs, that they grew up in poverty," said Rep. John Lewis, a black Democrat from Atlanta and veteran of the civil rights movement. "I don't care how poor you are, there's no way to justify what's going on in many communities."
"These hoodlums aren't looking for a job," scoffs John Ray, a Washington city councilman. "They have a job; they are full-time, swaggering criminals, and they are good at what they do. They sell drugs, run guns, rob and steal. They have no respect for human life and will kill you with or without provocation."
At the state and local level, many Democrats have joined with conservative Republicans in calling for more policemen, capital punishment and longer prison terms. And much of the debate in Congress this year dealt with reconciling these two competing visions.
The way Congress settled it was by trying to do a little of everything: Billions for new prison construction and drug treatment centers.
Expanding the death penalty and financing prison alternatives, such as "boot camps" for first time offenders. Handgun control measures and enhanced prison terms for criminals who carry illegal guns.
These approaches don't necessarily conflict with each other. The flexibility of the Clinton administration in brokering this bill was seen as proof that the president is the "new kind of Democrat" he promised to be during the campaign.
Still, Mr. Clinton's initial response to a gunman killing five people and wounding 19 others aboard a New York commuter train Tuesday was to discuss further gun-control measures.
"I hope that this will give some more impetus to the need to act urgently to deal with the unnecessary problems of gun violence in the country," Mr. Clinton said at a White House lunch with reporters.
In addition, the instinct among Democrats to address the underlying causes of crime remains very powerful. What may be different about 1993 is that influential voices within the party have expanded their definition of root causes.
Noting, as an old-style liberal might, that locking up a million felons has not reduced America's crime rate, Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, has said he was forced to look at "root causes" for violence. But the target he chose -- Hollywood and its violent television programming -- pitted him against a loyal liberal constituency.
His cause has been picked up by Democrats ranging from conservative Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina to liberal Attorney General Janet Reno.
And President Clinton, sounding like former Vice President Dan Quayle, went to a black church in Memphis last month to speak not about poverty, but a "great crisis of the spirit" gripping America.
This new, broader-based approach by Democrats seems to be working for them. A Times-Mirror poll released today shows that by a margin of 35 percent to 29 percent, voters believe that the Democrats can do a better job of reducing crime than Republicans. This is a reversal of historic trends.