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April 10, 2012

Could Romney appeal to independents and minorities with bold crime and punishment vision?

It seems now all but certain that Mitt Romney is going to secure the Republican nomination and take on President Obama in the general Presidential election this Fall.  Consequently, I am starting to think about whether and how criminal justice issues might play a role in the coming Romney v. Obama 2012 campaign.  In particular, I am wondering about who might be giving Romney advice on crime and punishment issues, and I am especially hoping that Romney might seriously consider a bold new GOP approach to these issues in an effort to reach out to independent and minority voters (especially young ones). 

As regular readers know, the Right on Crime folks have set forth an effective "conservative case" for criminal justice reform.  In this statement of principles, which stresses "limited government, transparency, individual liberty, personal responsibility, and free enterprise," there is a strong suggestion that incarceration should play a smaller role in modern criminal justice systems and that the drug war ought to be scaled back significantly.  GOP stalwarts ranging from Jeb Bush to Newt Gingrich to Grover Norquist to Edwin Meese to John DiIulio to Ralph Reed to Larry Thompson have all signed off on these principles and likely would be supportive of their embrace by candidate Romney.

Meanwhile, I strongly suspect that many folks (myself included) who thought President Obama might be an effective advocate for needed criminal justice reforms have been persistently disappointed by the work of the Obama Administration in this arena. On issues ranging from federal marijuana policy to criminal discovery reform to mandatory minimum sentencing statutes to clemency practices, the last few years have represented a missed opportunity for needed federal reforms with a deeply disappointing failure in leadership and vision.

I fully understand political and practical reasons why President Obama has not been able to engineer the sort of hope and change in the criminal justice system promised by candidate Obama.  But this very reality prompts me to believe there is a real opening for candidate Romney to seize on this issue and, without having to do any major Etch-a-Sketch revisions to his campaign rhetoric, to demonstrate to many potential swing voters and even a part of the Obama base that he is ready and willing to bring the GOP's rhetoric about the evil of big government to bear on the big federal criminal justice system.

Because Romney has not yet shown much boldness in his campaign strategies to date, and because criminal justice issues are sure to continue to take a back seat throughout the rest of the 2012 election season, I am not expecting much here.  But I continue to hope for change, and the recent work of a number of GOP governors on sentencing reform suggests to me that it now may be more likely to hear real talk about real criminal justice change from candidate Romney than from President Obama.

Some recent and older related posts: 

April 10, 2012 at 10:23 AM | Permalink


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1. The main reason the campaign is not going to be about criminal law issues is that crime -- now at a 50 year low in part because of increased incarceration and policing -- is not what the electorate is thinking about. The readers of this blog are thinking about it, sure, but they are not representative of the population at large.

2. The electorate is thinking about big government, sure, as well it should. But what it means by "big government" are the main programs sparking the massive increase in our debt. Prison is not among them. If the Bush tax cuts expire (as they will unless Congress and Obama act), EVERYONE'S income taxes are going up at the end of the year (not just the rich). That, along with out-of-control entitlement spending, are what's on the "big government" radar this year.

3. If Romney is foolish enough to try to run to Obama's left on crime issues, Obama need only point out that crime has decreased every year he's been in office. Romney will have no answer to that, since it's true.

4. Finally, if Romney does try to run to Obama's left, it will merely add to the impression that he flip-flops. It was Romney who proposed capital punishment when he was Governor, and if he ever embraced any part of the let-them-out-now platform, I never heard of it.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 10, 2012 11:14:08 AM

"many folks (myself included) who thought President Obama might be an effective advocate for needed criminal justice reforms have been persistently disappointed by the work of the Obama Administration"

IMO anyone who is "disappointed" by the Obama Administration's criminal justice record wasn't paying attention to his campaign rhetoric back in 2008. Any idea he would be a reformer was a mere projection of wishful thinking. He never remotely suggested such, either while running for office nor certainly once he ascended to power. More than any politician I've ever seen, Obama is like a blank palette onto which everyone projects their own views. People's expectations of Obama - pro and con - tend to say much more about them than the President.

This could be an opening for Romney, but the fact that criminal justice issues just aren't a top priority for voters right now either way makes me think it unlikely. If he's got any sense Romney will steer the discussion back to jobs, the economy, bailouts, etc.. Though I'd love to see him take it on, criminal justice is not an issue on which the 2012 election will be won or lost.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Apr 10, 2012 11:16:14 AM

There is nothing bold about Romney.

The only way you will ever get prison/corrections reform is if budget/deficit hawks on the right lead the charge as part of compromise budget cutting with liberals. Problem is, while liberals tend to be against the "police state" in principle, they are deathly afraid of losing votes by being seen as "soft on crime" so nearly all Democrats are just as bad at playing the fear-mongering game as Republicans now, or at least keeping silent out of fear.

The war on drugs is an old horse, and has finally resulted in de facto legalization of pot at the state level. The new major abuse is sex offenders: the most vulnerable segment of the population because they are the most loathed. Although only a small portion of sex offenders are molesters and rapists, the public wisdom is that ALL sex offenders are molesters and rapists, and that they are 100% recidivists.

Posted by: lawguy | Apr 10, 2012 12:52:05 PM

"nearly all Democrats are just as bad at playing the fear-mongering game as Republicans"

Worse, in my experience. Big-government liberals believe the state can solve every problem, and creating new crimes and/or sentence enhancements is frequently the method of choice: Ban what you don't like, subsidize what you do.

This is an area where big-government conservatives and liberals routinely ally against libertarians, civil and otherwise - almost the ultimate litmus test on limited government. One either, at root, supports or opposes expanding state power over the citizenry. One's stance on criminal-justice issues tells you who's serious about small government and who's just a poseur.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Apr 10, 2012 1:37:59 PM

Hey Grits, you may not recall that candidate Obama gave a pretty progressive speech on criminal justice issues in September 2007, as blogged here: http://sentencing.typepad.com/sentencing_law_and_policy/2007/09/obama-talking-a.html.

After some bold assertions/promises in this speech, Obama did not bring this issue up much on the campaign trail. Still, in contrast to Hillary, he supported retroactivity of new crack guidelines in Dec 2007, and he continued to "talk a decent game on this front" when pressed on these matters (e.g., lots of talk about drug courts, perhaps scaling back mandatory minimums, and stopping raids on med marijuana facilities).

At the very least, candidate Obama at least remotely suggested he would be better than prior administrations on these fronts. And, if the focus is on just crack sentencing or even broader post-Booker sentencing realities, arguably his administration has been better. But there is a big gulf between better and good, and I wonder if Romney could perhaps see a bit of a political opportunity here. Again, I am not going to bet on it, but I can still hope (and advocate).

Posted by: Doug B. | Apr 10, 2012 2:01:53 PM


"A progressive speech" is not really too much to base hopes on without more, at any rate.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 10, 2012 2:20:12 PM

I agree with Bill and will add one further point.

"the GOP's rhetoric about the evil of big government"

But it's just that, rhetoric. Romney doesn't believe in the evils of big government. Never has, never will. Government has gotten bigger under every Republican president of the last 75 years. He's no exception.

Posted by: Daniel | Apr 10, 2012 2:46:16 PM

One of the better articles I've seen. i think that romney have a little surprise for obama, and its only get better.

Posted by: text your ex back review | Apr 10, 2012 2:49:55 PM

I'm sorry, but did you just use the words "Romney" and "bold" in the same sentence, with no hint of irony or sarcasm?

Hoo boy.

I would actually like to think that there could be something bold and different about Romney as a candidate, and maybe this is it, and maybe he will pleasantly surprise all of us by developing principles, or something, between now and the general election.

But I'll not hold my breath, thankyouverymuch.

Posted by: Guy | Apr 10, 2012 3:06:21 PM

Is this the Nixon and China gambit? Only Republicans can propose meaningful criminal justice reform, because if the Dems did it, the "vast right-wing conspiracy" would jump all over them. Even Sen. Jim Webb couldn't get his commission approved by GOP Senators. All of this 'reform' in the states results from trying to maintain balanced budgets by reducing spending. Since prisons eat up larger and larger parts of state budgets, GOP Governors have committed themselves to 'reform.'

Posted by: Howard Silver | Apr 11, 2012 11:34:29 AM

Romney has a lot of surprises for the American people, none of which they are going to like when it all comes out...

Posted by: Cars | Sep 29, 2012 12:50:46 PM

I think that Romney had to go after Independents and minorities if he wants to win the election. Right now, the President is polling ahead among Latinos, Blacks, and Women. These are the same people that Romney keeps alienating. I do not think one single policy will court these voters. He seems to alienate them just as fast as he gains them.

Posted by: Auto Credit Express | Oct 22, 2012 7:32:26 PM

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