On the issue of hate crimes, the difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush could not be more clear.
During Wednesday night's debate, Gore spoke of James Byrd Jr., a 49-year-old black man brutally murdered by three Texas racists who dragged the poor man behind a pickup truck for three hellish miles in 1998. The vice president pointed out that the Texas governor did not support a hate-crimes bill supported by Byrd's family. The measure died in the Texas Legislature.
Bush responded that he supports the ultimate hate-crime law -- the death penalty. He stumbled in asserting that Texas juries sentenced all three of Byrd's killers to Death Row -- in fact, two of the killers were sentenced to death, a third was sentenced to life in prison. Shawn Allen Berry, 25, will not be eligible for parole for some 40 years. Said Bush: "It's going to be hard to punish them any worse after they get put to death."
Bush also noted that Texas already had a hate-crimes law on the books. No lie -- and that law, signed by former Gov. Ann Richards, sadly did not prevent three bigots from killing Byrd. Ditto the many federal laws against hate-crime laws. So why enact more feckless federal legislation?
Gore later repeated that the Byrd family supported the measure. He conceded, "There may be some other statute that was already on the books, but certainly the advocates of the hate-crimes law felt that a tough new law was needed." He then spoke of his support for more proposed federal legislation.
"It really amazes me how some people can pretend hate crimes are not different from all other crimes," Gore said last year. Wednesday he argued that hate crimes are more egregious because they "have not just a single victim, but they're intended to stigmatize and dehumanize a whole group of people."
"In this case," Bush later countered, "when you murder somebody, it's hate." That was not a rhetorical high moment, but Bush's point was salient. Murders and rapes are more than a crime against a single victim; they also wreak violence on victims' families and communities.
Besides, jurors are free to consider a perpetrator's vile motives, and sentence accordingly.
This election year, pundits have been fond of saying that the issues favor Democrats. Not this one. Surely most voters see the simplicity of the Bush argument.
There is substantively little to be gained by passing new hate-crimes laws every six or so years. Calling such bills tough, as Gore did, doesn't make them so. Thugs don't care if a federal statute says hate crimes are especially mean. When on a murderous rampage, thugs don't consider that if they kill or torture someone for racist reasons, there could be a federal sentencing enhancement. They are not intimidated because a federal law, such as the proposed measure Gore favors, warns that Congress believes racially motivated violence "disrupts the tranquillity and safety of communities and is deeply divisive."
The only reason, then, to pass more hate-crimes legislation is to make people who hate hate-crimes feel better. New laws aren't going to make haters feel worse or behave better. In that sense, hate-crime laws represent liberalism at its most extreme -- pushing feel-good measures that even proponents know won't yield the intended results.
That's OK, as long as they make supporters feel more righteous than other folk.
In the real world, meanwhile, where Bush has solid footing, the old methods work fine. Legalese and high-blown rhetoric aren't going to crimp the style of nasty derelicts. Thugs, however, do understand the strong language of capital punishment and harsh prison sentences.