Clinton Attacks Bush Record on Crime : Politics: Democratic nominee’s rally with officers in Houston mirrors a tactic the President used against Dukakis in last election.


In a move made as much for symbolism as substance, Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton traveled to President Bush’s hometown Thursday to launch an assault on the Republican incumbent over territory that has been the province of the GOP for a dozen years--crime.

At a rain-drenched rally on the steps of Houston’s City Hall, Clinton accused Bush of mouthing words of support for police officers during the 1988 campaign but failing to follow through once he became President.

“I think you ought to keep score not just on what we say but what we do,” said Clinton, surrounded as he spoke by three dozen uniformed Houston police officers.

“This is a race not just between the past and the future; it’s a difference between action and inaction. Anybody can talk a good game.”


Clinton’s embrace of the crime issue marked a new chapter in his continuing effort to co-opt the issues that made the difference for Bush in the 1988 campaign.

Coming off a bus tour on which he spouted Middle American values at every turn and staged events lifted directly from the Republican playbook, Clinton’s crime address signaled yet again that the 1992 nominee has learned from the bitter experience of his predecessor, Michael S. Dukakis, who was governor of Massachusetts when he got the Democratic nomination.

Although Dukakis spent most of the general election ignoring the opposition or playing defense--allowing Bush to set in the public mind an image of the Democrat as soft on crime--Clinton has been on the offensive since his nomination one week ago.

The Clinton campaign has come out of the convention mimicking Bush’s 1988 tactics.

The police event Thursday, for example, precisely duplicated Bush’s 1988 foray into Dukakis’ hometown of Boston, during which the Republican was surrounded by supportive Boston police officers. Police events were a staple of the Bush campaign--in one well-publicized gathering, the father of a slain police officer gave his son’s badge to Bush.

The symbolism of Clinton’s decision to Bush-bash in Houston was unmistakable. At a late-afternoon pep rally, Clinton went out of his way to tell campaign organizers that he believes in “a strong national defense and a strong political defense.”

“You won’t have any unilaterals,” he said in a reference to Dukakis’ refusal to take on the aggressive Republicans in 1988.

Much of Clinton’s current approach is meant to inoculate him against continuing efforts by Bush lieutenants to define Clinton as they did Dukakis. Those efforts are certain to be buttressed by the President himself after next month’s Republican convention.

In recent days, Republicans have criticized Clinton’s running mate, Tennessee Sen. Al Gore, for his environmental activism and have tried to slap Clinton with a “tax-and-spend” label. Clinton has acknowledged raising taxes in Arkansas but said most of the increases were used to improve state schools.

“They can say whatever they want about Al Gore’s environmentalism or about the fact that I raised some money to educate my children,” he said. “But we have a record too and it’s a better record than theirs.

“They’re not just throwing negatives out there into the wind today. They have a record, and their record is clear.”

Clinton campaign officials took pains to flesh out that record. En route to Houston, aides to the Arkansas governor released a three-page statistical analysis of Bush’s record on crime and drugs, and on Clinton’s experience in Arkansas.

The statistics, taken from the FBI’s crime index, showed that violent crime has increased by 22.6% since 1980, when Republicans took over the White House, and by 14.8% since Bush took office. Statistics for Arkansas were not made available.

In his appearance with the Houston officers, Clinton mocked Bush for proposing a $100-million cut in the amount of federal funds forwarded to local law enforcement agencies. The proposal was included in Bush’s 1992 budget.

In contrast, Clinton said, he would put 100,000 more police officers on the streets of America. Some of that would be accomplished through a plan that would allow college graduates to work off their student loans by serving as police officers, he said.

The rest would come from a separate proposal that would allow servicemen and women mustered out of the military because of defense cutbacks to earn military retirement benefits by working as police officers.

Vocal Clinton opponents were sprinkled through the crowd at the police event. In addition to anti-abortion demonstrators who have dogged Clinton since his nomination, there was a contingent of gun control opponents who booed heartily when the Arkansas governor endorsed a federal waiting period for the purchase of handguns.

That legislation is known as the Brady bill after former White House Press Secretary James S. Brady, who was shot in the head in the 1981 attempt on President Ronald Reagan’s life. Bush opposes the bill, which has yet to be passed by Congress.

“I don’t see how a President can ask men and women to put on uniforms and risk their lives to keep the rest of us safe if he won’t risk a little political capital,” Clinton said.

Clinton also on Thursday drew a cultural contrast between himself and Bush and indicated that he has not given up hope of winning Bush’s home state in November.

“I’ve spent my life in that state just to your east and I’m not sure we don’t have a lot more in common--in spite of all the football and basketball rivalries--than you do with the fellow who claimed the hotel room so he doesn’t have to pay taxes in Maine,” he said.

The President’s legal residence is a Houston hotel room.