Newt Gingrich, Craig Shirley: The real story of the Clinton crime bill

As Democrats continue to pummel former Vice President Joe Biden for his vote on the Clinton administration’s crime bill in 1994, we thought it was important to set the record straight on what that legislation was – and what it wasn’t.

In 1994, all the polling showed crime to be the No. 1 issue for Americans. In one national survey, fully 50 percent of Americans said crime was uppermost in their minds. A year earlier, Rudy Giuliani became the Republican Mayor of New York City in a campaign dominated by the crime issue.

Meanwhile, Bill Clinton’s young administration was on life support. Many polls had his approval foundering in the 30s. The CNN/Gallup poll had him at 39 percent approval and 52 percent disapproval. Support for Hillarycare was falling dramatically, and the Democrats needed a galvanizing issue on which to run in the fall campaign. They seized on crime.

BIDEN, IN 1992, TOUTED CRIME BILL DOES ‘EVERYTHING BUT HANG PEOPLE FOR JAYWALKING’

After a long preparation, a bill was introduced. The price tag for the initial bill was $1.3 billion, but little was actually devoted to fighting crime. Instead, the bill was stuffed with pork, including dance lessons for criminals, funding for midnight basketball, arts and crafts for convicted felons, funding for a statue for Democratic Congressman Jack Brooks of Texas, and other assorted waste. The bill also pledged taxpayer dollars to self-esteem classes, Olympic training, and conflict resolution.

These items earned guffaws and gasps of non-belief. The original Clinton crime bill was meant to line the pockets of liberal interest groups, not to fight crime. In true liberal fashion, however, the bill did ban semi-automatic guns which had been defined as assault weapons.

Passage was assured -- so much so that the Democrats didn’t even whip the vote (or pre-count it in Washington speak). Astonishingly, the procedural vote went down to defeat 225-210 on a hot and humid August day. The D.C. establishment was truly in a state of shock.

The establishment didn’t know that conservative forces, led by the NRA, had been softening up the Clinton crime bill for weeks on end at the grassroots level by utilizing mail, phones, and talk radio.

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Fifty-eight Democrats crossed over to oppose the Clinton crime bill – including many members of the Congressional Black Caucus. In the end, much of the pork was eliminated, dropping the cost of the bill to $380 million. The assault weapons manufacturing ban survived.

Bill Clinton finally signed a crime bill, but all the political advantage had been drained away. The pro-gun parts of America had been mobilized against the House Democrats setting the stage for the Republican Contract with America – and the eventual and historic takeover of Congress by the GOP in November of 1994.

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Craig Shirley is a Ronald Reagan biographer who also wrote a definitive biography of Newt Gingrich, "Citizen Newt." Shirley just finished a biography of George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, and this fall is teaching a one-credit class on Reagan at the University of Virginia.