Politics & Policy

The Dog That Hasn’t Barked

Kerry's 1989 vote against the death penalty for terrorists.

One of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s better Sherlock Holmes stories involved the hero solving a case based on a dog that should have barked. The dog that hasn’t barked in this election is John Kerry’s 1989 vote against the death penalty for terrorists who kill Americans abroad.

With less than a week to go before Election Day, I am stunned that this has not become a significant issue in the campaign. This vote not only underscores Kerry’s liberalism on a policy most Americans favor, it also exposes his weakness on national security and the war on terror.

That this vote hasn’t become a focus of the campaign is surprising for two significant reasons:

1. Media silence. The media has no excuse. As I have pointed out before, virtually every member of the national political media has The Almanac of American Politics, the definitive resource for politics at the national level, in his office. Page 779 of the 2004 Almanac states:

He [Kerry] is opposed to the death penalty in general, though said after September 11 he supported the death penalty for terrorist acts. In 1989, he voted against the death penalty for terrorists who kill Americans abroad.

Political reporters know about this vote. It is not a secret. It is not a poorly attributed opposition-research tidbit. It is a public vote specifically highlighted in the definitive political reference work of American politics. The media has simply chosen not to make it an issue in this election.

A “bulge” in Bush’s back that was supposedly a secret audio link between Bush and campaign operatives has received more press than this vote. There has been more press devoted to the Edwards’ enjoyment of Wendy’s hamburgers than to this vote. There has been more press devoted to fake memos than to this vote.

Yet Kerry’s position on the death penalty and his 1989 vote is the equivalent of a Republican’s vote against the creation of Medicare, or against medical leave, or against hate-crimes legislation.

The death penalty was a potent issue throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, and Bill Clinton even returned home to Arkansas during his first political campaign to sign a death warrant just to show his toughness on the issue. The death penalty also had a brief stint of controversy in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It’s hard to understand how it is not an issue in this campaign.

If it were not for an occasional, passing reference by Sean Hannity on talk radio, the public would have no knowledge of Kerry’s position on the death penalty or his 1989 vote.

2. Bush-campaign silence. Many expected the Bush campaign to actually lead off with this vote in its attempt to define Kerry after he clinched the Democratic nomination. The attack never came. Though the “flip-flopper” charge was brilliantly done, everyone I talked to expected Kerry’s awful vote to be used against him when the campaign moved from “flip-flopper” to “liberal” mode. As I write this, we are all still waiting.

It is possible that the Bush campaign or its surrogates has used Kerry’s vote against the death penalty for terrorists in targeted direct mail or on the radio. But it has not, to my knowledge, made it onto television sets. Why?

Much of this election turns on toughness. If you are not tough enough to support the death penalty generally and you vote against the death penalty for terrorists, you are not tough enough to be commander-in-chief, attorney general, or a prosecutor or police chief.

This is the dog that should chew Kerry’s presidential aspirations to pieces, but it hasn’t even barked. Will it?

Robert Moran is a vice president at Republican polling firm Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates. He is an NRO contributor.

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