The Politics of Crime in 2008

Sentencing Law and Policy reads the tea leaves from Iowa:

* The two biggest winners in Iowa — Mike Huckabee and Barak Obama — have the most progressive records and/or positions on sentencing issues: Huckabee has an extraordinary clemency record from his days as Arkansas governor; Obama has set forth the most developed and thoughtful position papers on sentencing reform.

* The two biggest losers in Iowa — Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton — have the least progressive records and/or positions on sentencing issues: Romney has taken pride in never granting a pardon and he attacked Huckabee on his clemency record; Clinton showed her affinity for tough rhetoric over sound policy and fairness by opposing making the new crack guidelines retroactive (details here and here).

As regular readers know, I have long believed that the politics of crime and punishment are much different now than they were in 1988 and 1992 presidential election cycles. After the 1988 loss and the 1992 win, Democrats concluded that they had to get tough, and this was likely a sound political judgment in light of crime rates and other post-Reagan realities of that era. But in 2008, a whole lot of voters — especially those under 30 — fear terrorists a lot more than drug dealers, and a message of re-entry hope now sounds a lot better than street crime fear. (Or perhaps, after having downloaded songs illegally using Napster, and having engaged in “illegal” sex as teenagers, and having enjoyed pot and perhaps other drugs casually, many voters now strongly need to believe that, as President George Bush said in his 2004 State of the Union address, “America is the land of second chance.”)

Like so many pundits this morning, I am surely trying to read too much into the votes of a few thousand people in Iowa. Nevertheless, it seems fair to conclude that “soft-on-crime” attacks failed in Iowa, and I will be watching the campaigns and the results over the next few weeks and months to see if any shrewd strategists recognize that the progressive talk on crime and punishment may not just be possible, but may actually now be essential to political success.

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