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Democrats Can Become the Party of Death Penalty Abolitionism

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Democrats will debate tonight in Texas, the state that executed more people in 2018 than all other states combined. As Texas Monthly noted just this week, “The Texas Death Penalty Machine Has Become Increasingly Grotesque.” For a party that has too frequently sent mixed signals on issues like gun violence and the death penalty, this can be a moment of clarity. Tonight, leading Democratic presidential contenders have the opportunity to demand, in one voice, an end to the state-sanctioned executions—solidifying Democrats as the death penalty abolition party and presenting a unified front on one of the biggest moral issues of our time.

It’s no secret that Democrats are contending with a troubled history on the death penalty. As recently as 2000, the party platform celebrated the commitment of President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and many of their congressional allies to “tougher punishments—including the death penalty.” Only in 2016 did the party platform promise that “We will abolish the death penalty, which has proven to be a cruel and unusual form of punishment. It has no place in the United States of America.” Yet, that same year, the party’s nominee, Hillary Clinton explained during the primary campaign that “I do not favor abolishing it, however, because I do think there are certain egregious cases that still deserve the consideration of the death penalty.”

The party has to stop sending mixed signals, and tonight’s debate is the place to begin. High-profile debates always offer candidates opportunities to distinguish themselves from one another. But, on this issue, Democrats should seek to distinguish their party.

Exploiting the Death Penalty for Political Gain

To some extent, this is a required response to Donald Trump, whose attorney general moved in July to begin scheduling federal executions, after a 16-year moratorium. William Barr’s action sent a signal to Democrats that they could well face a 2020 campaign in which the Republican nominee sounds a cynical cry for vengeance that makes capital punishment central to the domestic debate. To counter that cry, Democratic presidential contenders must recognize Barr’s announcement for what it is: a political gambit that is rooted in the past but that need not frame the future. That’s one of the reasons it makes political—as well as moral—sense to use the debate in Texas to push back. A unified show of opposition to capital punishment in a state that executes so many would signal that the Democratic Party will not be derailed and distracted by an issue where it can stand, finally, on the right side of history.

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