Sometimes the worst trick you can play on a politician is to take him at his word.
Take, for example, the pronouncements of Sen. John Kerry, who on NBCs “Meet the Press” on December 1 said he 1) opposes the death penalty because it is “applied unfairly,” 2) favors an alternative punishment he insists is “worse” than death, but 3) would execute terrorists, anyway, sparing them the more hideous fate he reserves for common killers.
Kerry appeared on NBC to announce he is exploring a run for the presidency. Host Tim Russert used the occasion to explore the prospective candidates views on capital punishment.
This issue, Kerry must know, has dealt a deathblow to many Democratic campaigns in recent years. The most notorious, of course, was the 1988 presidential bid of Michael Dukakis, who, when asked by CNNs Bernie Shaw if he would favor the death penalty for a killer who raped and murdered his wife, said, spasmodically, “No, I dont, Bernard.”
Those words might as well be chiseled onto the tomb of the old-line liberal Democratic Party.
Any who doubt it should recall that in the next election, Bill Clinton won the presidency after executing a mentally disabled killer a few weeks before the New Hampshire primary.
Faced with the dilemma of whether to follow in the footsteps of Dukakis, a fellow Massachusetts liberal who lost, or Clinton, a New Democrat who won, Kerry chose a third way: bilocation. He tried to occupy two distant positions at the same time: soft on capital punishment and hard on crime.
“Im opposed to the death penalty in the criminal justice system because I think its applied unfairly . . . and because Im for a worse punishment,” said Kerry. “I think it is worse to take somebody and put them in a small cell for the rest of their life, deprived of their freedom, never to be paroled.”
To emphasize his intention to make murderers live long and miserable lives, Kerry said, “Im talking about tough circumstances. Im not talking about some cushy situation where they live off the fat of the land in prison.”
And what of terrorists? “I have also said that I am for the death penalty for terrorists because terrorists have declared war on your country,” Kerry said. “And just as I, in war, was prepared to kill in defense of my nation, I also believe that you eliminate the enemy, and I have said publicly that I support that position.”
Now search for some logical consistency in these declarations. Why does Kerry say the death penalty is “applied unfairly?” Juries sometimes err, he explains. “I dont think it is right,” he said, “to have a criminal justice system that kills innocent people.”
Okay. But if a jury can err in convicting someone of murder, a jury-or military tribunal-can also err in convicting someone of terrorism. If it were wrong for this reason to execute convicted murderers, it also would be wrong to execute convicted terrorists.
And if Kerrys “tough” prisons were truly worse than death why would a common murderer merit that fate but not a co-conspirator in the 9/11 massacres?
Kerry spares the worst offender from his worst penalty, but applies it without remorse to the lesser offender. This, indeed, is punishment “applied unfairly.”
Take him at his word and there is no logical consistency in Kerrys position on capital punishment. On its face, it seems driven by malice, not justice.
But give Kerry a break. He is not a hater. He is a calculator. The best guess for what generates the complexity in his death penalty policy: The Democratic base that will choose his partys nominee will rally to a death penalty opponent, but the country that will choose the next President will reject any candidate who will not execute terrorists.
The quality of mercy in this would-be Presidents position on an issue of life and death has been strained-through the sieve of a cold-blooded campaign strategy.
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