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Take a stand, prez!
Capital punishment has always been a much-hyped issue, and US Presidential candidates know how to use it to the hilt

Time and again, the debate over whether capital punishment should be abolished or not, has come into the limelight. Although most of the developed countries have already abolished it, US is one of the notable countries that have chosen not to; China, Iran, Iraq, India and Saudi Arabia amongst the others. But when it comes to US Presidential Election campaigns of yore, the issue – akin to the abortion debate – has gone well beyond the legal realm and acquired strong political hues as well. The Presidential election 2012 is still 9 months away, but most candidates have already set their campaign themes. And more importantly, they have already taken their respective stances on the subject of death penalty.

In 1976, the US Supreme Court reintroduced capital punishment after it got banned in 1972. Since then, the US has executed 1,278 convicts (Death Penalty Information Centre data). Even the Gallup poll has concluded that US citizens are very much in favour of capital punishment. However, mass support came down to 66% in 2011 from 80% in 1994. In that light, some US Presidential candidates are using these new sentiments and taking uniquely individual positions in their campaigns very successfully while others are yet to wake up to its importance.

It was on March 28, 1973 that Jimmy Carter signed a new legislation to authorise the death penalty, which helped him win the Presidential elections in 1976. However, he later strongly opposed capital punishment and themed his next presidential campaign (1980) on it. But the stand was blown away as being ‘soft on crime’ by the then Republican candidate and eventual winner Ronald Reagan. On the same lines, Michael S. Dukakis lost the Presidential battle to George H. W. Bush for being lenient on the death penalty in 1988. He was found quoting, “I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think that there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime. We’ve done so in my own state.”

Bill Clinton went a step further in his campaign against Bob Dole. He ran a TV ad where he not only vowed in favour of putting more cops on the streets but also pleaded to expand the death penalty – “That’s how we’ll protect America,” he had said then. He even signed the execution papers for a convicted murderer during the campaign. During his election campaign, George Bush Jr. ushered in his support in favour of the death penalty by mentioning that “ultimately, it helps save innocent lives.” During his six year tenure as the governor of Texas, some 152 convicts were executed. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, economic recovery and job creation were the prime issues. And Obama exploited it to the core. However, candidate John McCain clearly supported the ‘1994 Biden Crime Bill’. Obama, with his diplomatic stance over the issue, managed to just about defeat McCain with 53% to 46% votes in his favour.
Elections are back again and the debate has resurfaced. Rick Perry, who recently ended his run for Presidency, cleverly exploited the tag of ‘presiding over more executions than any governor in modern history’ – 236 to be more specific. Mitt Romney, the strongest opponent of Obama, has always been a strong supporter of the death penalty. For the uninitiated, Romney actively fought for a Bill to reinstate capital punishment in the Massachusetts state legislature in 2005. Newt Gingrich is of the opinion that increasing the number of offenses punishable by death would eventually go a long way towards deterring illegal drug smuggling. Obama, however, has always played tactfully without taking any clear position on capital punishment. On one hand, he sometimes opines that capital punishment “does little to deter crime.” On the other hand, he is in favour of capital punishment in cases “so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment.” Last year, the whole world was stunned over the execution of Troy Anthony Davis (arguably an innocent), but Obama chose to remain silent over the issue; terming it as a ‘matter of the State’.

On one hand, supporters of the ultimate punishment might label Obama’s stance as unnecessarily complex and nuanced. On the other hand, opponents might think that any compromise on the pretext of protecting the innocent might eventually stall the larger movement to abolish capital punishment. Irrespective of how Obama’s stand is viewed, the fact is that the issue can be used quite decisively to manipulate votes to one’s favour; and Obama, unfortunately, is still sitting on the fence rather than grandstanding on this issue.

By:- Mrinmoy Dey & Amir Hossain

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