Politics & Policy

The Missing Issue

The death penalty vanishes from national politics.

One of the lessons the Democratic party learned in the 1980s was that it could not run candidates at the national level who opposed capital punishment. The lesson sank in after the 1988 presidential debates, in which Michael Dukakis was asked whether he would favor it if someone raped and murdered his wife. He said no, with the same emotion he would have shown in response to a question about farm price supports. The exchange entered the lore of campaign mistakes. In the three following presidential elections, the Democrats nominated candidates who favored the death penalty.

But for the first time in 16 years, they have nominated an opponent. John Kerry used to oppose the death penalty altogether; now he opposes it, with an exception for terrorists. Yet the issue has been largely absent from the campaign.

One reason it hasn’t figured more prominently may be that the political class has a dated perception of public-opinion trends on the issue. During the late 1990s, the drop in public support for the death penalty was widely noted. In the Gallup poll, support dropped by 15 points between September 1994 and May 2001. In 2000, the issue was to some extent used against Republicans. Democrats portrayed Bush as too bloodthirsty in his approach to capital punishment as the governor of Texas, thus making Gore out to be a moderate supporter of the death penalty.

Yet even at the time, the death penalty was still fairly popular. That May 2001 poll found 65 percent of the public saying that they favored “the death penalty for a person convicted of murder.”

What’s more, support has been rising since September 11. Gallup’s May 2004 poll showed 71 percent support and 26 percent opposition. Asked whether the death penalty was imposed “too often,” “not often enough,” or “about the right amount,” 48 percent of respondents to that poll said not often enough (while 25 percent said the right amount and 23 percent said too often). While my colleague Byron York has written about the recent increases, almost nobody else has.

The falling salience of crime as a political issue has undoubtedly reduced the power of the death penalty as an issue. But I suspect that for many voters, a candidate’s opposition to it is still a sign that he is too liberal and out of step with their values.

Raising the issue might, of course, conflict with the Bush campaign’s desire to court Catholics. But Catholic voters are, for better or worse, not with the Catholic hierarchy on the issue: That May 2004 poll found them to be slightly more pro-death penalty than the public at large. (They favored it 75-22 percent. Fifty percent of Catholics thought that the penalty is imposed too infrequently, and only 20 percent that it is imposed too often.)

It could be that Republicans are not using the death-penalty issue because it is seen as more of a state issue than a presidential one. I’m not sure that voters make that distinction. But even if they did, there are federal issues here. States’ practices are constrained by the federal courts, and there have been some signs of renewed activism on the question from the liberal justices on the Supreme Court. And Washington politicians can, to some extent, make issues where they will. Senators Jon Kyl and Orrin Hatch have introduced a bill to expedite the federal review of states’ death-penalty sentences in cases involving the murder of police officers. A real presidential push for that bill would, presumably, yield another Kerry flip-flop.

Will Bush make the death penalty an issue in the last weeks of the campaign? If not, we will have to grant Bill Clinton another political triumph: On his watch, the death penalty stopped being an issue that kills Democrats.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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