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At this early date, several fault lines seem likely to divide the 2004 Democratic presidential field. The first is experience: Al Gore (assuming he runs) will insist that after September 11 it's essential; John Edwards will remind voters that Gore has experience losing. The second is geography: Richard Gephardt (or TomDaschle or both) will focus on Iowa; John Kerry will rely on New Hampshire; Edwards will concentrate on the South. The third is style: Joe Lieberman is solemn; Edwards is folksy; Kerry is aggressive; Gore is anyone's guess.

Where the candidates aren't sharply divided--at least so far--is on the issues. Each falls within the fairly narrow post-Clinton consensus: fiscally conservative, socially liberal, politically timid. Once upon a time, Lieberman--who flirted with vouchers and Social Security privatization and opposed affirmative action--would have been the obvious candidate to break out of that consensus, to the right.

But since his vice presidential selection, Lieberman has made peace with the teachers' unions and civil rights groups that wield so much power in Democratic primaries--and as a result, on domestic policy he now sounds like everyone else. There's still a chance that Lieberman, or even Gore, could go to the right of the field on foreign policy--by aggressively backing a war on Iraq. But on domestic affairs, the open space is on the left. And in that vein, I have a modest, and modestly heretical, proposal: It may be time for a national Democrat to take on the death penalty.

During the Clinton years national Democrats banished capital punishment from their agenda. The party's metamorphosis on the issue was encapsulated in two singular moments: Michael Dukakis's emotionless answer to Bernard Shaw's question about whether he'd want the death penalty if his wife Kitty were raped and murdered; and Bill Clinton's decision to fly home to Arkansas in January 1992 to execute mentally retarded murderer Ricky Ray Rector.

Many Democratic strategists think Clinton's grotesque move helped him win the White House. And since then, virtually every prominent Democrat has either reversed his previous opposition to the death penalty or gone silent on the topic. In 2000 Gore said he considered capital punishment a deterrent. Gephardt, Daschle, Lieberman, and Edwards support it as well. Kerry remains generally opposed; but when asked about his position a couple of weeks ago in South Carolina, he was so afraid of appearing anti-death that he noted, in a morbid non sequitur, "I killed people in Vietnam."

But while Beltway Democrats remain terrified of the issue, in the states there is mounting evidence that the politics of capital punishment are changing. The biggest reason is America's decade-long decline in crime, which on issue after issue--from gun control to mandatory sentencing--has tipped public opinion away from the early 1990s obsession with law and order toward a greater concern for civil liberties and individual rights. According to ABC News, support for capital punishment, which stood at 77 percent in 1996, fell to 65 percent this month.

More importantly, the death penalty debate has shifted from outright abolition--which remains unpopular--to a moratorium; from whether government has the right to kill to whether it is doing so competently and fairly. And that shift--like the shift on abortion from outright abolition to prohibitions on the partial-birth procedure--has leveled the political playing field. In an ABC/Washington Post poll last year, a death penalty moratorium garnered a majority of public support.

And that support has expressed itself particularly strongly in the states where moratoriums have actually been proposed. In January 2000 Republican George Ryan became the first governor to halt executions, after a study found that Illinois had exonerated more death-row inmates than it had executed. Polls at the time showed that 70 percent of state residents approved of his decision (and 64 percent still support the moratorium today).

Since then, the idea has picked up steam--a moratorium passed the Nebraska legislature and failed in New Mexico's by a mere two votes. (In 2000 the New Hampshire legislature passed an outright ban--only to see it vetoed by its Democratic governor.) Nine states are currently conducting studies of their capital punishment systems, studies that will likely generate momentum for a halt to executions. And last week Maryland became the second state to impose a moratorium. According to public opinion polls there, almost half of state residents approve.

For a Democratic presidential hopeful, endorsing a moratorium would be risky. But it might pay off. In the 2004 primaries, the African American vote looks up for grabs (though Gore has the early edge). And given the obvious racial disparities in the death penalty's application, a Democrat who made it an issue could make real inroads among the party base.

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