Crime bill win may not be enough to put Clinton back on top

Click to follow
BY NARROWLY passing the crime bill, President Bill Clinton has won one of his few recent victories. But the success may not be enough to convince voters that his administration loses more battles than it wins.

The passage of the anti-crime legislation does little to assist the President's effort to reform health care. This is still dead in the water. In the two years since he took office, Mr Clinton has frequently said that it is the linchpin of his presidency. But the most optimistic Democrats now expect only face-saving tinkering with health insurance this year.

Mr Clinton has taken to comparing his relations with Congress to the endless struggle between Ahab and the white whale, in which neither side was was victorious. Nevertheless, the passage of the crime bill late on Thursday, by a surprisingly large majority of 61 to 38, provided Mr Clinton and the Democrats with a much- needed victory. Two weeks ago, when the House rejected the bill, he looked at his most ineffectual, squeezed between the anti-gun control lobby on the right and opponents of the death penalty on the left.

At the last moment Mr Clinton and the Senate majority leader, George Mitchell, detached six moderate Republicans who feared to vote down a crime bill before voters go to the polls in a Congressional election in November.

A serious casualty in the battle over the crime bill was the Senate Republican leader, Robert Dole, who rejected compromise in order to show the Republican right that he is a suitable candidate to face Mr Clinton in the 1996 presidential election. 'I assume that the headlines will read, 'Republicans hand Clinton a victory',' he said after the vote. 'I regret that I failed as a leader to keep our people together.'

Unlike health care reform the crime bill is largely symbolic. It has more to do with politics than with making it safer to walk the streets. About 85 per cent of law enforcement is handled at a local and state level. Federal legislation has only a marginal effect. The dollars 30.2bn ( pounds 20bn) allocated over six years for more police, prisons and crime prevention is not a large sum given the size of the problems. The 19 banned makes of assault rifle are not, as the National rifle Association points out, assault weapons, since they are semi-automatics. Consumers, criminal or not, still have a range of lethal weapons available.

But the bill has great political significance. It lies at the heart of Mr Clinton's effort to take the issue of crime from the Republicans. He would not drop the gun ban when advised to do so by Democratic Congressional leaders because he wants to target the NRA. He supports mandatory life sentences for people convicted of three felonies and an expansion of the death penalty to cover more than 60 crimes.

A fortnight ago in the House of Representatives Mr Clinton's strategy seemed to fall apart. The death penalty provisions alienated black Democrats, as the majority of those executed are black. But they did not conciliate Republicans, who denounced as 'pork' the sums allocated to prevent people from becoming criminals in the first place.

Mr Clinton has again demonstrated his combative qualities and his ability to bounce back from defeat, as he did last year, with the passage of the Nafta trade bill. He has shown that the Republicans also make mistakes.

Congress will return briefly in September, but without sufficient time to pass any health legislation that resembles the universal health care originally proposed by Mr Clinton. But the crime bill has shown that the President does not lose every battle.