BOSTON--Oh boy, now this is starting to be fun. Senator Ted Kennedy and his opponent, Mitt Romney, duked it out here Tuesday night while the Senate candidates in New Jersey were getting blood all over the floor down there. In New York, they're still reeling from Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's endorsement of Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo. The Virginia Senate race is setting new lows daily. All in all, it's becoming quite a festive political season.
For those who thought they might never see a real political debate again--joint news conferences during which the candidates do not deign to notice one another and campaigns that consist entirely of television ads are pretty much the new norm--the Massachusetts fight night was a reminder of just how much fun an old-fashioned duke-out can be. Biff, bam, pow! Take that! Ooof, below the belt!
The boring old issues have not been sighted all fall, all hands having dropped them in favor of a kindergarten-fight style that goes, "I hate Washington worse than you!"
Kennedy took 32 years of experience in the Senate, which is supposed to be worse than having leprosy this year, and rammed it down young Romney's throat. What most surprised this Texan is how liberal Massachusetts is. In Texas, Romney would be lynched as a socialist in no time. But several businessmen listening to the debate in a Copley Square bar wound up siding with Kennedy, apparently appalled at the specter he raised of Jesse Helms as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee; Orrin Hatch, who is antichoice, as chairman of Judiciary; and Al D'Amato as chairman of Banking. Every time Romney suggested that the government "do something"--about the decline of the family or whatever--Kennedy proposed that the government "do more," to loud applause. So much for the death of liberalism.
The current fad among East Coast Republicans is Christine Todd Whitman, governor of New Jersey, who was elected on a dramatic promise to slash taxes. Now in office, she is not quite slashing them but has a plan to take them down a bit at a time over several years, apparently waiting to see if she has to close the schools in the meantime. Being a sort of modern Republican, she is pro-choice and has no interest is regulating people's sex lives. What is odd about her sudden appearance as a role model is that it seems so at variance with the direction Southern and Western Republicans are taking.
Being in favor of gun control is a big plus here, while it's still a death sentence in Texas and Oklahoma. "God, guns and gays" are the big Republican issues in much of the country, while Eastern Republicans seem to think it's rather bad taste to bring up any of them. The new Republican style is to avoid the topic of abortion altogether. The parts of this party don't match at all.
Being anticrime is a perennial favorite (it's so hard to find a pol who's pro-crime anymore), so being big on the death penalty plays well everywhere. But there seems to be widespread confusion about whether favoring mandatory sentencing is tough-on-crime or just plain dumb.
Let's walk through this slowly. Being against mandatory sentencing does not mean that one favors letting criminals go. It means that judges retain some discretionary power over the length of the sentence.
This is a good idea because:
--It gives criminals a reason to behave themselves; they might get out early.
--Assuming the judge is not a moron (not always a safe assumption), he or she can think up creative alternative sentences for those who will benefit from them.
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--Mandatory sentences mean that our prisons are crammed with small-time, nonviolent losers, usually drug addicts found with a small amount of some controlled substance (a relic of our many fits of let's-get-tough-on-drugs). Because their sentences are mandatory, we wind up having to let murderers and rapists loose before they've served even half their sentences (although statistically, murderers are still the least likely cons to be recidivists).
This is why the three-strikes-and-you're-out law is so stupid. Two bad checks and the theft of a turkey, and some guy's got lifetime rights to a badly needed cell, and we have to let a child molester loose to make room for the turkey thief. This is why voting against mandatory sentencing is the real tough-on-crime vote. Are we all clear now?
As for why we can't keep them all in jail for the maximum sentence, we are dangerously close to spending more on prisons than on education right now. Unless you really want your taxes to double and then triple, this is not a dandy idea. Which brings us to the dread issue of what-causes-crime. An ounce of prevention is still worth a pound of cure. It's fashionable to announce that government can't solve this problem alone: it takes parents, communities, cops, schools; it even takes midnight basketball leagues. But one thing that we know from history is that slums breed rats, slums breed roaches, and slums breed crime. The biggest difference between a kid who goes straight and one who gets bent is hope and no hope.
Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright Creators Syndicate, Inc.