IN THE CAMPAIGN EQUIVALENT of a shootout at the OK Corral, President Clinton pulled out an endorsement from the 270,000-member Fraternal Order of Police yesterday as his answer to Republican challenger Bob Dole's unveiling of a tough-on-crime package likely to win him even stronger backing from the National Rifle Association.
While both presidential contenders actually agree on many crime-fighting measures, due in part to Mr. Clinton's move to the right, their political managers realize well that crime ranks high on voter-concern lists.
Mr. Clinton has been able to attract the support of the FOP and other smaller police organizations through his legislation to put 100,000 more cops on the street and his fight to control handguns and ban assault weapons. Mr. Dole, in turn, has the politically powerful NRA behind him because he fought both measures it regards as a step toward denying Americans their constitutional right to bear arms.
While overall crime rates have been declining dramatically, despite public perceptions to the contrary, Mr. Clinton has joined Mr. Dole in backing conservative demands for eliminating parole for repeat violent offenders, applying the death penalty, imposing longer sentences, imposing curfews on youngsters and treating serious juvenile criminals as adults. Now the backing of the FOP, an organization that endorsed Republican George Bush four years ago, gives the president his strongest trump card.
Mr. Dole sought to outdo the president yesterday with an anti-crime package in which he blamed administration indifference for a sharp rise in teen-age drug use, a contributing factor in a rise of random crime by youthful offenders. This promises to be his strongest point. He also reiterated his promise to appoint conservative judges and seek a constitutional amendment to protect victims' rights.
With the police organizations on Mr. Clinton's side and the NRA and anti-gun control groups behind Mr. Dole, the crime issue hot-button will be pressed many times from now until election day. In our view, the country would be well-served if Mr. Dole would drop his opposition to the ban on assault weapons and if Mr. Clinton would get serious about fighting youthful drug use. That, at least, would be a start toward a more reasoned debate on crime.