Soft on crime. Through the 1970s and '80s, Republicans flogged their Democratic opponents with those three words. George S. McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Walter F. Mondale, and Michael S. Dukakis all opposed the death penalty.
In 1988, Dukakis's stock crashed after he was asked whether he would favor the death penalty if his wife was raped and murdered. He replied with detachment: "I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime. We've done so in my own state."
He went on to lose 40 states to George H. W. Bush.
In 1992, party orthodoxy shifted. A self-styled "new Democrat," Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas not only favored capital punishment, he also returned to Little Rock during the campaign to sign execution papers for a convicted murderer.
In 2000, Al Gore and Bill Bradley, the Democrats vying to succeed Clinton, favored capital punishment. And the trend basically continues in this presidential campaign cycle.
All six upper-tier candidates are on record as supporting at least some application of the death penalty. Moreover, four were opponents who have modified their views -- Howard Dean, John F. Kerry, Joseph I. Lieberman, and John Edwards. Richard A. Gephardt has been a consistent death penalty supporter, and Wesley K. Clark initially said after joining the race in September that he backed a moratorium on executions, but has voiced support of capital punishment as a punishment option for "the most heinous crimes."
The three Democrats who steadfastly oppose the death penalty are all lower-tier candidates in the polls -- Dennis J. Kucinich, Carol Moseley Braun, and the Rev. Al Sharpton. All three have said they would seek to abolish capital punishment.
The issue is more symbolic than essential to the role of the federal government. Since 1988, Congress has approved the death penalty for federal cases, most involving murder. But of 885 executions in the United States since 1976, only three have been for federal offenses, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Only 26 of 3,517 inmates on death rows are in federal prison; the rest are in the 38 states with death penalty laws.
"It's a sensitive issue, and [the candidates] know they're going to be branded," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a nonprofit organization. "Everyone agrees now that the death penalty has serious problems in its implementation. But they're politicians and the issue has a lot of symbolic power and has been used to hit people over the head."
The number of death sentences by states is about half what it was in 1999, and after some highly publicized exonerations of death-row inmates, support for capital punishment also has declined. But a Gallup Poll in October found that despite its lowest level of support in 25 years, capital punishment was still backed by 64 percent of those surveyed.
All of the Democrats who support capital punishment have voiced strong concerns about the fairness of its implementation, and all endorse the Innocence Protection Act now pending in Congress. The bipartisan bill would provide funds for post-conviction DNA testing in some criminal cases, reduce the backlog of unanalyzed DNA samples in crime labs across the country, and standardize the qualifications of defense counsel in cases that might lead to the death sentence.
Ken Lisaius, a White House spokesman, said President Bush has not taken a position on the Innocence Protection Act legislation but has made his own proposal. Bush's plan would provide $233 million a year to improve the use of DNA in solving crimes and exonerating the innocent. Bush is a strong supporter of capital punishment. In his six years as governor, 152 convicted murderers were put to death in Texas.
Among the Democrats who have shifted on the issue, Dean, early in his term as governor of Vermont, said: "A state shouldn't be in the business of taking people's lives." But by 1994, he began rethinking his opposition, citing murder cases in which the victims were children. Dean says "the death penalty should be available for extreme and heinous crimes, such as terrorism or the killing of police officers or young children. But it must be carried out with scrupulous fairness."
Kerry still describes himself as a death penalty opponent because it "is inequitably enforced and has been wrongfully applied." Yet he says capital punishment should be available "in cases of terrorists who have literally declared war against our country." Moreover, after voting against an expansion of the federal death penalty in an omnibus crime bill in 1994, Kerry voted for the full legislation, which also banned assault weapons and provided funds for 100,000 additional local law enforcement officers.
Lieberman opposed capital punishment while a state senator in Connecticut in the 1970s, but reversed his position as state attorney general in the '80s. He has consistently voted in favor of capital punishment in 15 years in the Senate, according to his staff. Of his change, Lieberman has said he initially believed that "it was more important to protect the rights of criminals," but saw crime in his New Haven neighborhood and "realized that the law has to be tough on criminals."
As a trial lawyer, Edwards originally opposed capital punishment, but has said: "As I grew older, and more importantly, as my children grew older, my views changed on that." He now says the death penalty is "the most fitting punishment for the most heinous crimes."