The death penalty just isn’t what it used to be in presidential politics.
As Rick Perry picks up his campaign going into the fall, his home state is set to add six more executions — including a somewhat controversial one — to the already record tally he’s amassed during his years as governor. They’ll come at what could be politically inconvenient times, as Perry participates in key debates and heads out on the trail.
But in a measure of how much the electorate’s passions have shifted, Perry’s death penalty record isn’t looking like it will have much of an effect on his White House ambitions — as a positive or a negative. That’s a big change from the days when Bernard Shaw pressed Michael Dukakis at a 1988 debate about whether he’d still oppose the death penalty for someone who’d raped and murdered his wife, or when Bill Clinton took time off the trail in 1992 to attend the execution of a brain-damaged cop killer.
“The public is a lot more ambivalent than they had been, say 15 years ago,” said Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. “They see it as a grayer issue now.”
A recent Gallup Poll showed the majority of Americans — 64 percent — support the death penalty for convicted murderers, but the issue has fallen from the forefront of the electorate’s interests.
That’s made the death penalty a “secondary issue,” Dieter said. “It may be a character issue. It may be an issue that people do have an opinion on, but I don’t think that it’s an issue that they vote on.”
People on both sides of the issue agree.
“The death penalty is not, at least so far, a public policy issue that people are animated about in terms of this election cycle,” said Cully Stimson, a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
Most of the upcoming Texas executions are as uncontroversial as capital punishment gets — a man who murdered his wife in front of their 5-year-old daughter and killed a San Antonio police officer, for example. But they’re scheduled to intersect with some of the highest-profile days of the fall campaign for Perry, who’s still introducing himself to the electorate. Just one day after the debate sponsored by CNN and the Tea Party Express on Sept. 12, Texas is set to execute 31-year-old Steven Woods, convicted of robbing and killing a man in Denton County in May 2001. Two men, 47-year-old Cleve Foster and 44-year-old Lawrence Brewer, are set to be executed in the days immediately preceding the Orlando debate hosted by Fox News and the Republican Party of Florida and the state party’s Presidency 5 straw poll Sept. 24.
The issue doesn’t seem as if it will play a significant role during the primary campaign, and if it does, it’s likely to be to Perry’s advantage: Though all the Republican candidates favor the death penalty, none of them have a record on it. Perry’s support for capital punishment will be yet another element of his executive experience to stress and another way of appealing to the base over Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman — neither oversaw executions during his time in office, since Massachusetts has no death penalty and Utah didn’t exercise the one on its books during Huntsman’s tenure.
Michael Rushford, president of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a California-based pro-death penalty group, said he hopes and expects the issue will continue to be to Perry’s advantage if he wins the nomination and goes into the general election against President Barack Obama, who advocated for death penalty reform during his legislative career but supports capital punishment for “heinous” crimes.
“Perry has been a governor for 11 years and has authorized the execution of over 200 murderers,” Rushford said, noting the Texan’s record was the subject of an extensive Washington Post story last month. “Opponents and critics of him, primarily from the Democratic side, are already singling him out. I think it will be an issue, and he’s pretty strong on it.”
Rushford said he believes Perry is “uniquely equipped” to use his position to his political advantage in the general election.
In the time between now and November 2012, “there will be some terrible murders,” Rushford said. “All it takes is one or two to galvanize the public on an issue. There will be a candidate on the Republican side who can come up and say, ‘I know how we’d handle this guy in Texas, but I don’t know what President Obama and his Justice Department will do.’”
For Perry, though, his death penalty record might be less about whether people agree with him on the issue and more of a factor in defining his public persona to the many voters who still don’t know him. Perry’s been widely criticized for several executions that have happened on his watch, including that of Cameron Todd Willingham — whom many argued was innocent — and Humberto Leal Garcia, a Mexican national executed at the beginning of July despite not being properly put in touch with his embassy at the time of his arrest.
Then there’s Hank Skinner, who’s to be the subject of one of the six lethal injections scheduled for the fall in Texas. Skinner’s demand for DNA testing of the evidence in his case has already pushed his execution back four times. Skinner is now set to be executed Nov. 9, opening Perry up to questions about compassion and application of forensic science at a moment when the nomination fight will be in full swing.
And Perry’s death penalty record is already gaining much attention. His record was the topic of an extensive story in the Post last month, and The Texas Tribune last week published a story focusing on the more controversial executions that Perry has overseen.
This aspect of his record could be yet another factor feeding a cowboy caricature for Perry or an unwelcome comparison with former President George W. Bush, whose support for the death penalty sparked criticism of his own coarseness and lack of attention to detail.
While he was Texas governor, Bush presided over 152 executions. Gearing up for the 2000 campaign, Bush sought to play down that record but drew attention for the case of Karla Faye Tucker, who became a born-again Christian while in prison for killing two people with a pickax. Despite calls for mercy from Pope John Paul II and Pat Robertson, Tucker became the first woman executed in Texas for 135 years after Bush turned down her request for a 30-day reprieve.
But bringing up the death penalty in the presidential election moved far fewer voters than expected, said Elaine Kamarck, an adviser to Al Gore’s 2000 campaign who is now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“We tried and tried to make it an issue,” she said. “I think it probably was an issue with some people who were already uncomfortable with [Bush]. But I’m not sure that it was one of the issues that really moves large numbers of voters.”
“In 2000, it was connected to a broader narrative about Bush, that he was not very thoughtful, that he went ahead and executed people — perhaps too quickly,” she said. “I’m sure it swayed some votes, but it wasn’t the dominant issue in the campaign.”