At last, a campaign issue everyone agrees on -- George W. blew it. And, no, we're not talking about some long-gone Peruvian powder he may or may not have inhaled in his youth. We're referring to his woeful mishandling of the cocaine question. It's not just what he wouldn't say, but the way he wouldn't say it.
Bush started by digging an impenetrable Maginot Line in front of rumors about his drug use. But it didn't take too much press persistence before he sounded retreat faster than Corporal Agarn on "F-Troop," lobbing lame, Clintonesque evasions as he scrambled for cover. He swore he'd not used drugs for seven, no, 15, no, make that 25 years -- but wouldn't go farther than that. (Man, that must have been some 28th birthday party!)
And while admitting to having "made some mistakes" and learned from any mistakes he "may or may not have made," Bush failed to recognize his biggest mistake of all: fumbling his chance to be the first politician in the post-bimbo-eruption era to take the principled position that his private life is just that -- and mean it.
But all is not lost. In fact, the governor has the chance to dramatically alter the dynamic of campaign 2000 by seizing the moment and turning a personal negative into a positive act of political courage and moral leadership.
The important drug question is not "What did George sniff and when did he sniff it?" It is "How do we handle the legion of nonviolent drug offenders who are now crowding our prisons?" This long-overdue discussion has become an electrified third rail of American politics -- a subject neither party has been willing to touch for fear of being incinerated on contact. Bush can change that by redirecting the media spotlight off the issue of his past substance abuse and on to an issue of actual substance -- namely, the racial and economic injustice of our present drug policy.
In the name of toughness in the drug war, mandatory federal sentences of five years are meted out to anyone caught with more than five grams of crack cocaine. For the same sentence, you would need to possess (ital) 500 (unital) grams of the more upscale powder form of the drug. The result has been a two-tiered sentencing system, disproportionately affecting African-American men, who are five times as likely to be arrested for drug violations than white men, even though their rate of illegal drug use is about the same. Despite a decline in violent crime, a record 1.82 million inmates are now in our state and federal jails. And of all federal prisoners, 60 percent are there for violating drug laws.
"Bush should take a compassionate look," Jesse Jackson told me, "at the thousands of young Americans paying the price in our jails for a mistake that -- if he made it -- did not mar his life." Jackson, for one, intends to use this moment to spotlight the horrors of the "jail-industrial complex which is driven by the incarceration of nonviolent drug users."
And there are many conservative voices calling for mandatory minimum sentencing to be repealed or at least reexamined -- including Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, criminologist John DiIulio and former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese.
"The different sentencing for crack cocaine and powder cocaine is something that there's no doubt needs to be addressed," Dan Bartlett, Bush's campaign spokesman, told me from Austin. "We do not have mandatory sentencing down here because we don't want to handcuff judges." But by signing legislation in 1997 that made it possible for judges to send to jail even first-time nonviolent offenders carrying less than one gram of cocaine, Bush has opened himself to charges of a double standard -- if, that is, he ends up admitting that the youthful mistakes he has alluded to include being in possession of less than one gram of cocaine.
It would be a truly defining moment if Bush were to use any personal confession he might make not only to express his regret but to decry our present drug policy that makes second chances and learning from one's mistakes nearly impossible. Now is the time for Bush to prove his compassionate conservatism. Compassion literally means "to suffer with." Here is his chance to show that he has suffered with the 70 million Americans who drug czar Barry McCaffrey says have tried illegal drugs -- and that Bush believes in their ability to turn their lives around, just as he clearly has.
If he chooses instead to stand behind the "zero tolerance" of our $18-billion-a-year war on drugs -- which is every day looking more and more like a domestic Vietnam -- and continues to advocate harsh sentences for first-time nonviolent offenders, then he will expose himself as the worst kind of hypocrite, forfeiting any claim of moral superiority over the man he seeks to succeed.
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