Atlantic Unbound

NPR Commentary -- April 19, 1996
by James Fallows

Issues -- or Politics?

A brief episode in Washington this month perfectly illustrated the difference between the way issues affect real people and the way they are processed by our political-media machine.

A policy group called Drug Strategies joined with the Police Foundation to announce the results of a nationwide poll of chiefs-of-police. According to the poll, chiefs across the country were alarmed about drug violence and drug use. The chiefs from big cities said that drugs were far and away the greatest threat to their communities. Two thirds of all chiefs said the drug problem was constantly getting worse.

That may not sound surprising, but the next finding was. These head law enforcers said that law enforcement itself would never stop the problem. The most effective anti-drug weapon, in the chiefs' view, was not an undercover agent but a drug educator in school. The number-one obstacle in the fight against drug use, according to chiefs in big cities, was a shortage not of jail cells but of places in drug-treatment programs. These, remember, were not social workers speaking but people who wear badges and carry guns.

When the chiefs were finished, two political consultants took the floor. The first was a Democrat, the second a Republican -- but both were respected professionals, and they spoke as one in pooh-poohing mushy prescriptions like those from the chiefs. "Education" and "treatment" might be fine for seminars, they said, but no real politician could ever talk that way. In politics, you had to tell people what they already knew. And what people thought they knew about drugs was that locking up users and executing pushers was the way to go. In a political campaign, the consultants added, it's a waste to talk about any issue unless you and your opponent disagree. Since all politicians were obliged to sound tough on drugs, no politician had an incentive even to raise the issue -- even though they knew it was among the voters' greatest concerns. One of the chiefs had said, "We have to quit looking for simple answers to complex problems." The political pros were saying: simple answers are the only ones a smart candidate will give.

The first duty of any campaign is to be smart and win, but politicians become hacks when they think of winning as their ultimate duty too. Historically we admire leaders who stand for something beyond the least it takes for victory -- as Harry Truman did nearly 50 years ago when deciding to integrate the military, or as Bill Clinton or Bob Dole might do now in laying out, as realistically as the chiefs did, the options we have for coping with drugs. The consultants say that press and voters would punish them for their honesty. I hope the candidates give us a chance to prove the professionals wrong.

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Copyright © 1996 by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.