Bush on Drugs: Out of Focus

Success in political campaigning requires a command of symbols; effectiveness in governing demands a mastery of substance. President Bush’s confusion on this point was apparent last week when he hit the road in what his aides said would be a policy initiative against drug abuse. What the country got was a series of photo opportunities.

There was the President telling the Veterans of Foreign Wars that he wants to use “our nation’s armed services” against drug traffickers. Bush is not alone in this desire. It is not shared, however, by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who know that the men and women under their command are not trained as police officers. Putting aside the rather considerable constitutional obstacles to using the military as a police force, it also is fair to ask what the armed forces would do in this connection? The answer is very little.

This sort of talk gets applause. It does not take the country one step closer to understanding or solving the hideously complex and destructive problem of drug abuse, which is as much a crisis of public health and failing social policy as it is a police issue.

Later in the week, the President traveled to New York City, where he met with agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency and the family of a federal officer who recently was killed in the line of duty. Such an audience deserved to hear its President deliver a grateful nation’s expression of support and sympathy.


Instead, it heard Bush declare that he hopes to enact a federal law requiring the mandatory imposition of the death penalty for the killing of a law enforcement officer in a drug-related case.

“Drug dealers need to understand a simple fact,” Bush said. “You shoot a cop and you will be severely punished, fast. And if I had my way, I’d say, ‘With your life.’ ”

Among the several things standing between the President and getting his way is the Constitution.

In a series of cases decided 13 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory death sentences are unconstitutional. In striking down a number of such laws--including one that directed the execution of anyone who killed a police officer--the court held that imposition of the ultimate penalty requires the exercise of discretion guided by law. Anything less, the court said, amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Bush’s decision to ignore this fact was bad enough; worse was his intervention in New York state’s debate over whether to reimpose capital punishment. “Drug traffickers used to know” that they would be executed for killing police officers, the President said. “But it’s been over 25 years since anyone has faced the death penalty in this state, and they may have gotten a little forgetful.”

Shades of Willie Horton. It’s a point with a certain crude symbolic value and nothing at all to do with the facts of life in a real nation where one city without a death penalty--New York--has a lower per capita murder rate than one that does have a death penalty--Houston.

That’s something Bush might want to think about, even if it won’t fit in a sound bite.