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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Two Wedge Issues Return

Today’s presidential campaign news includes a couple of items that bring back some bad old memories for Democrats of a certain age: discussions of crime and welfare policy.
Those who came of age in the 1990s or later may have a hard time comprehending the extent to which perpetually rising violent crime rates and the vast unpopularity of high public assistance levels affected politics at every level during the 1970s and 1980s. Crime and welfare served as the hardy perennials of race-tinged conservative “wedge issues” that helped erode white working-class support for the Democratic Party. The decline of crime rates (particularly murder rates) in and after the 90s, and the even more rapid decline in welfare rolls after the 1996 federal welfare reform legislation signed by President Clinton, largely took these issues off the table.
Well, crime rates have been recently going back up in many cities, even as the Bush administration slowly starved Clinton-era crime-fighting initiatives. So it’s no big surprise that Hillary Clinton has unveiled a new anti-crime proposal in Philadelphia, a city where spiking homicide rates have become a major local preoccupation.
Much of Clinton’s plan really isn’t new; it focuses on reviving her husband’s signature COPS initiative, which was largely gutted by Bush and pre-2006 Republican-controlled Congresses. And indeed, the fact that it’s a Democratic candidate who has first raised this issue in the presidential contest reflects the extent to which Bill Clinton succeeded not only in blunting conservative “wedge” appeals on crime, but making support for police officers, as opposed to the GOP’s obsessive focus on maximum incarceration of drug offenders, a popular theme for progressives.
It will be interesting to see if Barack Obama, who in the past has bluntly criticized the failed war-on-drugs as a crime-fighting strategy, begins talking about crime policy more visibly as well. Meanwhile, if the issue continues to emerge, we may find out whether John McCain goes back to the tried-if-not-so-true Republican rhetoric on crime as a reflection of social permissiveness.
The welfare issue hasn’t really “come back” yet, except as a subordinate item of John Edwards’ discussion of poverty. But as a New York Times feature today indicates, it may just be a matter of time, as the struggling economy collides with the rising numbers of public assistance recipients who have reached the time limits established in the 1996 law. Both Clinton and Obama have praised the reforms as successful, and it’s very unlikely Democrats will re-embrace the idea of a national entitlement to cash assistance. But soon enough, the subject may no longer be “off the table,” and it could be of more than passing importance how the partisan dynamics of a new debate on the government’s role in providing a safety net against extreme poverty eventually shape up.

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