It is the nature of the beast known as the incumbent politician. Anything good that happens while youre in office is all your doing. Anything bad that happens, well, it was an act of God or something like that but surely not your fault.
So it was that when a recent report appeared to show a huge increase in teenage drug abuse, Bill Clinton was so silent you could hear his stomach rumbling. And when a new Justice Department survey announced that violent crimes had dropped 9 percent in 1995, he crowed so loudly that every time he mentioned the report I had to turn the TV volume down by five notches or risk permanent ear damage.
But the president wasnt responsible for the crime drop, any more than he was for McDonalds having introduced its Arch DeLuxe sandwich, which also happened during his term. (Come to think of it, maybe he WAS responsible for the Arch DeLuxe. Anyway, the point is made.)
The main way we know that neither Clinton nor anyone else on the federal level deserves the credit is that about 95 percent of crime is handled by state and local agencies. Thats easily measured, because about 95 percent of the criminals behind bars are there on state charges, not federal ones.
Of course, there was that much ballyhooed federal crime bill of 1994, which was supposed to put 100,000 new cops on the streets. As late as September 23, at a White House briefing, Clinton claimed it had done so. Yet studies show that at most its added about 17,000 new police officers, and its hard to tell how many of those would have been added anyway but are now simply paid for out of federal funds instead of local ones.
At the same September 23 briefing, Clinton touted the effectiveness of the "three strikes and youre out" provision of the 1994 crime bill, imposing a mandatory life sentence for persons convicted of three violent felonies. In fact, all of nine persons have been sentenced under the federal three-strikes law.
Then theres the celebrated "Brady Bill," requiring a waiting period and background check for handgun purchasers. The Brady law "has helped keep more than 100,000 felons and other prohibited purchasers from buying handguns," Sarah Brady boasted at the Democratic National Convention.
Clinton just fires rounds in any direction, taking credit for anything good, absolving himself from anything bad.
Its not hard to imagine that those felons simply turned around and bought a gun on the streets or had a friend buy them one at a store. University of Chicago law professor John Lott in a recent analysis found that the Brady Bill didnt show any beneficial effects.
So what HAS caused the decrease in crime? Youre probably guessing part of it is because so many of Bill and Hillarys friends have recently been put away. But remember were talking violent crime here, not that genteel white-collar stuff. Incarceration clearly is a factor, though.
Since 1980, the prison population has tripled. Just in the last two years, the population of state and federal prisons has increased by almost 14 percent.
This has not only the direct effect of keeping the bad guys off the streets, but there is good evidence that stiffer sentences have a deterrent effect on would-be bad guys.
The National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas, Texas released a report earlier this year analyzing why that state had a huge drop in serious crime over the last few years. Among the reasons it concluded:
Prison capacity tripled in just four years. The average time served for serious crimes increased by a half. In 1994, of those seeking parole, almost 80 percent were denied it. By contrast in 1990, of prisoners considered for parole, 80 percent were granted it.
As in Texas, says the study author, Morgan O. Reynolds, the national crime drop has a lot to do with increased incarceration. "I know its obvious, but some people have to point these things out," he said.
Guns may also have something to do with the decline, but in exactly the opposite way Clinton would have you think. Lotts study primarily focused on the laws states are increasingly passing allowing persons to carry concealed weapons. He found that when such laws went into effect in a county, murders fell by 8.5 percent, and rapes and aggravated assaults fell by 5 and 7 percent, respectively. Many criminals naturally start rethinking their careers, knowing that their next potential victim is also their potential executioner.
"I dont think its coincidental that last year we had ten states adopt conceal and carry laws and that also there was a drop in violent crime rates that year," Lott told me. Unfortunately, much of the decrease is probably also due to something that neither Clinton nor anybody else has control over — demographics. Weve recently experienced a dip in the number of men age 18-25, those most likely to commit violent crimes.
But soon those numbers will go back up. Meanwhile single-parent families, which produce a vastly disproportionate number of criminals, continue their inexorable climb. Dealing with these problems is going to require serious thinking and serious leadership. Blasts of hot air from the First Mouth will not help at all.