Leading Article: Clinton cracks down on crime

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The Independent Online
BILL CLINTON could hang a new sign on his wall to keep his mind on the main issue, as he did during his election campaign. This one would read 'It's crime, stupid'. For while the news on the economy gets better every day, crime gets worse. It now easily tops the list of issues that most concern the public.

In his State of the Union message on Tuesday night, he spoke strongly of how 'violent crime and the fear it provokes are crippling our society, limiting personal freedom, and fraying the ties that bind us'. He has recognised that it preoccupies not only the middle and upper classes but most of the population, including especially the black communities that are in the thick of it.

He also sees that his response must cut across the political spectrum, dealing with both causes and symptoms, prevention and punishment. In this he speaks for the modernising element in the Democratic Party that is anxious to shed both its welfare liberalism and the trendy, individualistic radicalism of the Sixties, both of which are now widely felt to have undermined the traditional fabric of American society.

There is a tactical element in this, too. Mr Clinton needs to win back the working- and middle-class Democrats who voted for Ronald Reagan and are still hesitant about supporting his own presidency. Indeed, parts of his speech could have been lifted straight from Mr Reagan. He promised more policemen and tougher punishments, including life sentences for those who commit three violent offences. This may raise doubts among experts, who will ask why rehabilitation should be abandoned after three offences, but it will go down well among voters, especially those wanting reassurance that Mr Clinton is not at heart a traditional liberal.

He should also win wide support for his rather less specific 'community empowerment agenda', designed to counter the breakdown of community, family and the work ethic, and his call for something suspiciously like back to basics: parental responsibility, education and teaching children to 'obey the law, respect our neighbours and cherish our values'.

But he also acknowledged the left by calling for partial gun control, job creation and more money for drug treatment and universal health care. He will need every ounce of political support he can raise for his health-care programme because it will be the central test of his presidency.

The speech thus confirms his determination to be a strong reforming president, building on a legislative record that is already impressive. Given his rising popularity as the economy grows and the deficit shrinks, he now looks in a strong position to push through a programme of more radical domestic change than the United States has seen in many decades, provided he is not tripped up by the various scandals that still hover around him. If he succeeds, he will also be in a better position to provide leadership abroad.