Politicians reveal a lot with death penalty stances

This Just In...

May 24, 2000|By DAN RODRICKS

MENTIONED in passing: Hillary Rodham Clinton supports the death penalty. I noticed that fact listed in a press report, along with expanded health care and a litany of other nice things she supports. What do you know, friends? The first lady and candidate for the U.S. Senate from New York, widely regarded as a liberal, goes for a little capital punishment now and then.

So does Hil's husband, of course.

He took time out of his 1992 campaign for president to return to Little Rock to oversee the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, a 40-year-old man who murdered a police officer in 1981. Rector, who was brain-damaged, was one of three men executed while Clinton served as governor of Arkansas. A Republican opponent had once accused him of being soft on crime -- and he lost that election -- so Clinton never allowed himself to be accused of that again. He played the death penalty card.

Many Democrats have done the same over the years -- even the ones considered liberals. (In 1992, Clinton was one of three Democratic presidential contenders who supported the death penalty, the others being Bob Kerrey and Paul E. Tsongas.)

Actually, there's little surprise in white liberal and moderate Democrats voicing support for the death penalty.

Since 1980, when blue-collar Democrats crossed party lines to put a Republican in the White House, Democrats have been trying to win them back by appropriating positions usually considered conservative.

Attaching capital punishment to more federal crimes, reforming welfare and claiming victory over poverty -- Clinton and his pals from the Democratic Leadership Council have been trying to counter the so-called excesses of New Deal liberalism for years.

They've succeeded in moving the Democratic Party so far to the middle you can barely tell what it is anymore. It's kind of a political blob, really, with few edges or lines that give it an identity.

So I wasn't as surprised as some of my conservative friends to see that Hillary Clinton supports the death penalty. (Don't worry, they still don't like her.)

I suppose I could respect the first lady's position if it was a firmly-held principle, based in some profound eye-for-an-eye morality. I have friends who feel that way.

But Hillary Clinton said in one press report this year that the death penalty has her "unenthusiastic support," so I figure she just plays this card, like the rest of her supposedly liberal comrades, for the political punch.

Until last week, her expected opponent in the New York Senate race was Rudy Giuliani, crime-fighting Republican mayor and former prosecutor. Supporting the death penalty was Hillary Clinton's hedge against the soft-on-crime accusation that can ruin a campaign.

What's really rare these days is the politician who publicly states opposition to the death penalty.

That's why Martin O'Malley's statement the other day took a lot of people by surprise.

Reporters asked him about the death penalty. And the Democratic mayor of Baltimore, in a pitched battle to stem the city's high homicide rate and deliver on his tough anti-crime promises, said he opposes capital punishment.

O'Malley said he supports a moratorium on state executions, backing state Del. Howard Rawlings and former Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who had called for one in an ad in The Sun two days earlier.

Maybe O'Malley was just being careful not to publicly counter two prominent African-American leaders over an issue with heavy racial overtones. But then O'Malley added: "I don't think the death penalty solves a single homicide, nor have I ever known it to bring anybody back to life."

Amazing: A crime-fighting mayor, who enjoys the support of rank-and-file police officers, thinks the death penalty is overrated as a means of ensuring public safety -- and says so.

It takes a lot of nerve to take that position.

It's much easier to argue for the execution of evil killers. Most politicians do.

But, so far, O'Malley keeps proving he's not like most politicians.

Maybe he knows there are much more effective measures for ensuring public safety: educating children to get them out of poverty and crime, rehabilitating juvenile offenders to keep them from repeating their crimes, stemming the demand for drugs to stem the dealing that leads to the killing, getting guns out of the hands of criminals.

Those are the tough solutions. Very complicated, long-term solutions. By contrast, the death penalty looks simple, clear, final. That's why it's so appealing.

That's why Americans have a hard time letting go of it. They believe the death penalty is the most fundamental element of American justice -- the ultimate penalty that gives the system its firm foundation.

Supporters persist -- despite evidence of its uneven application, despite stories of DNA testing that proved inmates on death row innocent, despite the option of life without parole as a severe, but more civilized sentence.

Despite the whole grand question politicians never raise: whether the world's richest and most powerful nation should also be its most humane.

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