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December 29, 2007

Interesting commentary on 2008 politics of death

Writing at Slate, Niko Karvounis has this real interesting commentary entitled "Capital Opportunity: Democrats could safely champion death-penalty reform—why aren't they?". Here are excerpts:

This is the first election in 20 years in which the death penalty isn't a go-to issue for conservatives. For a generation, Republican candidates wielded their fondness for executions like a weapon, and Democrats either summoned their own righteous bloodlust and embraced capital punishment, or avoided the subject altogether. But the Bush years have witnessed a steady shift in how Americans perceive the death penalty, and this time around, it's the last thing Republicans want to talk about. And yet, faced with an opportunity to seize the high ground in a debate they've been losing for decades, the Democrats can't summon the nerve. So, 2008 could go down in history as the year the Democrats had the chance to confront the death penalty—and didn't....

Death-penalty skepticism is so widespread that Clinton, Obama, or Edwards would hardly be going out on a limb if they made it a platform.  This year, executions reached a 13-year low, the Supreme Court geared up to examine lethal injection, and earlier this month New Jersey became the first state in 40 years to abolish the death penalty.  And yet the candidates aren't biting.  Part of the explanation is that Iraq and terrorism have become the new arena in which Democrats must prove their mettle.  Another concern may be that so long as 47 percent of Americans support the death penalty, advocating reform is still too risky. But Democrats say that they represent moral leadership and a force for change. That doesn't square with staying quiet about the death penalty until it's universally loathed. And with the race in the primary so close, candidates should be eager to distinguish themselves from their opponents while playing to the base (Democrats are far more likely to oppose the death penalty than are Republicans).

Curiously, the best explanation for the Democrats' reticence on this issue may be the remarkable decrease in crime of recent decades. Only 3 percent of Americans think crime is one of the top two problems facing the nation today, and while that should make it an ideal time to do away with the death penalty — because scare tactics can't be easily exploited — it's actually having the opposite effect. Americans may know that the death penalty's not working. They just don't care enough to insist that something be done about it.  And for all of their talk about new forms of leadership, the Democratic candidates aren't going to waste air time or political capital trying to change that. The stage is set for a Democratic candidate to do the right thing on the death penalty, but none of them has the nerve.  They might just be wimps after all.

I am not sure I agree with all the analysis in the commentary, but it serves to highlight an issue that will be lurking around the campaigns in 2008.  With the Baze lethal injection case to be argued in just over a week, and with a Supreme Court decision likely around convention time, the candidates on both sides are unlikely to be able to avoid death penalty talk throughout the election season.

December 29, 2007 at 11:41 PM | Permalink


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