Election 2004  
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Taking the Ultimate Penalty Off the Table

John Kerry's stand on the death penalty – that there shouldn't be one – is now the Democratic Party's platform.
 
 
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The Democratic party platform that will be adopted this week includes one particularly significant change from the platforms adopted by the party conventions of 1992, 1996 and 2000. During the platform-writing process, the drafting committee quietly removed the section of the document that endorsed capital punishment. Thus, for the first time since the 1980s, Democrats will not be campaigning on a pro-death penalty program.

Why the change?

Simply put, on the question of execution John Kerry is a very different Democrat from Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Clinton and Gore, while surely aware that capital punishment is an ineffective and racially and economically biased vehicle for fighting crime, were willing to embrace it as a political tool. When he was running for the presidency in 1992, then Governor Clinton even rushed back to Arkansas during the 1992 campaign to oversee the execution of a mentally-retarded inmate.

With Clinton and Gore steering the party's policies, Democratic platforms explicitly and frequently endorsed capital punishment.

But Clinton and Gore are no longer at the helm. And, as of tonight, the party will no longer be on record as supporting the death penalty. Asked about the removal of the pro-capital punishment language, U.S. Representative Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the chair of the committee that drafted the document, explained that, "It's a reflection of John Kerry."

Kerry, who is often accused by his Republican critics of flip-flopping, is made of firmer stuff than most politicians when it comes to the issue of capital punishment. He opposes executions in virtually all cases – making an exception only after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when he said he would consider supporting capital punishment, in limited cases, for foreign terrorists.

On the domestic front, Kerry has earned high marks from death penalty critics. Last fall, when the Students Against the Death Penalty project of the American Civil Liberties Union rated the nine candidates who were then seeking the Democratic presidential nomination on a variety of death penalty-related issues, Kerry and Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich were the only two who received perfect scores.

Kerry opposes the execution of juveniles, supports greater access to DNA testing for death row inmates and argues that studies "reveal serious questions, racial bias, and deep disparities in the way the death penalty is applied." Kerry was a cosponsor of the National Death Penalty Moratorium Act of 2001 and of the National Death Penalty Moratorium Act of 2003.

"I know something about killing," Kerry says, referencing his service in Vietnam as a swift-boat commander. "I don't like killing. That's just a personal belief I have."

Polls show a majority of Americans support the death penalty in at least some instances. But since the late 1980s, enthusiasm for capital punishment has been slipping. Many Americans, including some political leaders such as former Illinois Governor George Ryan, have come to question the morality of state-sponsored executions, as the use of DNA analysis has led to the exoneration of dozens of death-row inmates.

Still, the death penalty remains a divisive issue. Not since 1988 has either major party nominated a critic of capital punishment for the presidency. The 1988 Democratic nominee, former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, was attacked by that year's Republican nominee, George Herbert Walker Bush, for opposing the death penalty. Whether Kerry will face similar attacks from Bush's son, an enthusiastic backer and frequent practitioner of state-sponsored executions during his days as governor of Texas, remains to be seen. But the volatility of the issue may explain why Democrats have been so quiet about the shift in platform language.

It is notable, however, that, in addition to Kerry's home state of Massachusetts, eleven other states bar executions. Among them are a number of the battleground states that could decide the November election, including Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, Maine and West Virginia.

John Nichols is The Nation 's Washington correspondent.