At some point every presidential campaign veers toward that perennial vote-getter, the crime issue. Voters' ears may perk up, since crime is always high on the list of public concerns. But they also have to remind themselves that presidents have limited authority in this area.
Occupants of the White House can't do the work of prosecutors and police chiefs. They can help set a tone for society and devise policies that steer local initiatives.
Yet campaign rhetoric often skirts policy specifics - which brings us to the recent sparring between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole over crime. Mr. Dole, in the best alliterative tradition, has accused Mr. Clinton of running a "liberal-leaning laboratory of leniency." His exhibit No. 1: the statistics on increasing drug use among young Americans.
Those figures are disturbing, showing a doubling of youthful drug experimentation over the past couple of years - though drug use in the population at large is way down from its high point in the late '70s and early '80s. Dole's criticisms have substance: The president should have been doing more to keep drug abuse high on the national agenda, and his sharp cutback in the staffing of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy was ill-conceived - the result of a rush to slash staff in accord with campaign promises.
But Clinton has reversed course since. The staff of new drug "czar" Barry McCaffrey is back up to former levels. Clinton's drug-fighting budget for next year tops $15 billion, its highest level ever.
But in this area, like that of crime in general, the measures that count most take shape at the local level - on the streets, in schools, through community groups, and perhaps most crucial, in homes. Recent research indicates that a wavering attitude among parents of teens contributes to casual drug use. Some were drug experimenters themselves and may find it hard to unequivocally condemn the practice. Yet here moral equivocation can be deadly.
As a representative of this generation of parents, Clinton must be crystal-clear on the evils of drug use. He seems to be striking that tone now, urged on by his challenger's charges. Both candidates, in fact, should engage in some useful competition to see who can come up with antidrug strategies that go beyond vows to launch foreign wars against poppy and coca producers or Dole's vague pledge to cut youthful drug use by 50 percent in four years.
The right mix of treatment, prevention, and enforcement is key. Let the candidates lay out their plans and defend them.
The same goes for the broader crime issue. Both candidates favor tougher sentencing, the death penalty, and other muscular measures - though they have notable variances in some areas such as gun laws.
Meanwhile, the crime rate in the United States is dropping, a phenomenon national politicians quickly note but can take little credit for. Better police methods, larger prison populations, and demographics are all at work - and so, we're sure, are the efforts of parents and neighbors to instill a sense of right and wrong in children and communities.