Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced some policy changes meant to reduce the number of drug offenders subject to mandatory minimum sentences. Across the political spectrum, people have come to view mandatory minimums as a disaster from almost any standpoint, and as some people have pointed out, mandatory minimums were originally a Democratic idea. Those of you who are too young to remember the early 1990s might not appreciate the raw terror that gripped Democrats in those days. People regularly lost elections when their opponent's opposition researchers found some obscure vote that could be twisted into a direct mail piece saying, "Congressman Smith voted to let violent criminals out of jail—so they could rape and murder their way through our community. Is that the kind of man we want in Washington?"
As it happens, at the time I was working for a political-consulting firm that created some of those mail pieces. Our clients were all Democrats, and we produced crime attacks for both primary and general elections, targeting other Democrats and Republicans alike. In 1994, it reached an absolute fever pitch. My firm had about 30 clients, all Democrats, and we did tough-on-crime pieces for every single one. In many cases, we'd make ten or so different mail pieces for a client, and eight of them would be about crime. In other words, in every last race we worked on, every candidate was accusing every other candidate of being soft on crime. The highlight of my consulting career was when I lay down on a sidewalk so our photographer could trace around my body with chalk for a murder aftermath scene we staged.
Of course, it was all tinged with the inescapable whiff of race—the most famous soft-on-crime attack from the era was George H.W. Bush's 1988 assault on Michael Dukakis over the "Willie Horton" case.11 These days we look at the elder Bush as a kindly old man who does things like wear silly socks and shave his head in solidarity with a young cancer patient, and his place in history has been immeasurably aided by the fact that his presidency was nothing like the spectacular disaster of his son's. But we shouldn't forget that in order to reach the White House, H.W. enthusiastically led one of the most despicable campaigns of racist fear-mongering in the history of American politics. It isn't that crime wasn't genuinely high in those days, because it was. But the media took people's real concerns and whipped them into a frenzy of fear, talking about crack babies condemned to lifetimes of mental retardation (which turned out to be completely bogus) and terrifying young black male "superpredators" (ditto), turning individual horror stories into lightning-fast policy changes, like the abduction and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klass, which produced a local-media frenzy the likes of which I've never witnessed before or since and led directly to California's "three strikes" law.
At the time, the question was never, "Is this proposed measure to increase prison sentences a good idea?" The only question, asked by politicians from both parties, was whether it couldn't be made much tougher. If you suggested that "tough" might not be the best standard by which a policy should be judged, you were risking your political career. Republicans embraced this zeitgeist with glee, and Democrats embraced it out of abject fear.
Fortunately, times have changed, and it's now possible to have a rational discussion about crime. That simple fact—that politicians can support a variety of proposals on crime and punishment without worrying that their careers will be over as soon as somebody utters the phrase "soft on crime"—is something for which we should be enormously thankful, as much work remains to be done. As Greg Sargent pointed out, "this is an issue around which Dems concerned about racial justice, and conservative libertarians (such as Senator Paul) who share race-based concerns in their better moments, and conservatives who see the issue more through the prism of their opposition to government overreach and 'one size fits all' solutions, should theoretically be able to find common ground."
The most important change in the last 20 years is that crime has fallen so dramatically (see here for instance), and in response we've seen a real cultural shift. I'm sure there are still politicians who'd love to tar their opponents as soft on crime. But they know it probably wouldn't work. And that means there's at least a chance we can make real policy change.