Last week I wrote about the heartbreaking remarks Bill Safire wrote for President Nixon in 1969, in the event that astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were left stranded on the moon. Thankfully, those words never needed speaking. Writing about that speech got me thinking about some other political and presidential addresses.
One evening last week, I logged into YouTube and, until fairly late into the night, surfed around for old speeches. I’m a speech junkie so this is not as unusual as it sounds. I listened to Bobby Kennedy’s tribute to his late brother at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, then Ted Kennedy’s eulogy for Bobby in 1968. I moved on from such sad stuff to some of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign speeches. It felt good to see once again a youthful candidate – several years younger than I am now – proclaim, “Yes we can.”
You listen to that for a bit and you can be transported, briefly, to what seems like a bygone era (if 11 years ago can qualify as bygone). It got me reflecting further on the special psychology of campaign rhetoric.
There have been campaigns of hope and campaigns of fear. Obama ran on hope. His people actually put it right there on an iconic poster: HOPE. Barack Obama won on that message; won big. On this thematic score, Obama’s poster may have been outdone only by Bill Clinton’s fortuitous place of birth, which enabled him to be introduced everywhere in 1992 as “The man from Hope.”
The question to me is this: Can hope win this time around?
My very preliminary answer is this: for any Democrat in this cycle, a message of hope is essential. Maybe it is essential in any cycle for a progressive. It seems that it must be a part of the policies, themes, and tone of a successful campaign. Hope elevates, and we need elevating like never before. Hope inspires and, perhaps like many others, I’m in sore need of some inspiration.
But I also want to win. And my general optimism is tempered by the fear that Trump will be reelected. I am not sure everyone is afraid enough. I am hopeful and optimistic about the resilience of America, its people, and its institutions. But hope and optimism will sink if we keep Donald Trump for another round.
There is much to fear from a second Trump term. I’m afraid that a far right 7-2 Supreme Court will be with us for decades, that the lower courts will be further filled with conservative ideologues serving life terms. I’m afraid that the right to reproductive choice will be gone – not eroded but gone. I’m afraid the chance to effectively address climate change will slip away. I fear that racism and bigotry will swell, that tolerance will wane. I fear that the cabinet will contain even more lackeys than leaders, as reasonable people like Jim Mattis and Dan Coats are purged for supplicants like Bill Barr and, dare I say it, Devin Nunes. I fear that the rule of law will be irrevocably undermined, our alliances permanently frayed. I fear war with Iran and more cozying up to Russia. And I fear that the politics of untruth will become the norm, if it is ratified by a second Trump victory.
These are all important things to underscore, and I want campaigns to make that case. Sometimes it takes fear to get people to turn out and vote.
But how does this square with our craving for hope and a hopeful tone? I wonder whether there is a place for fear in this campaign, combined with hope. Can you run a campaign of hope and fear. Is that a self-defeating rhetorical paradox? I am not sure.
Fear, for one, is an antidote to complacency. And complacency may be the greatest obstacle to defeating Trump. I also think it depends on what we mean by “fear.” Fear is a loaded negative term; hope an inherently positive one. Fear seems okay if grounded in reality and fact and wisdom. Fear in the sense of sounding the alarm, rather than stoking hatred of difference. A fear without loathing is what I am talking about, borne not of hate but arising from love of country, of diversity, of reform. Fear, not of artificial bogeymen and scapegoats like immigrants and people of color, but of backward-looking policies, racist tropes, and slippage into autocracy.
I’m going to give this some more thought. I am curious to hear your thinking too. Talk to you next week.
DEBATING THE DEATH PENALTY
The Justice Department announced last week that after a nearly two-decade hiatus, it would reinstate the federal death penalty, reigniting an impassioned national debate about the fairness and effectiveness of the ultimate punishment.
Capital punishment has always been a highly contentious national issue. In a 1958 case, Trop v. Dulles, the Supreme Court established that we must draw the meaning of the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual” punishment by considering “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” Applying this standard, the Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to take away an Army private’s citizenship as punishment for wartime desertion.
In 1972, it appeared that the Court dealt a death knell to the death penalty, ruling that it was unconstitutional as imposed in the three cases before it that involved murder and rape. But just four years later, in a landmark decision, Gregg v. Georgia, the justices overturned the de facto national moratorium, ruling that the death penalty doesn’t automatically violate the Eight Amendment. Rather, what’s unconstitutional is “excessive” punishment, the Court said, that is — punishment that involves “unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain” and is “grossly out of proportion to the severity of the crime.” Capital punishment for the crime of murder, the majority reasoned, cannot be invariably disproportionate to the gravity of that crime.
The Court in Gregg then set forth guidelines for the procedures death penalty states need to implement in order to pass constitutional muster:
- A scheme that uses “clear and objective” criteria to direct and limit the discretion for imposing the death penalty “so as to minimize the risk of wholly arbitrary and capricious action.”
- Provision of an appellate review process that ensures that the death penalty is “not imposed capriciously or in a freakish manner.”
- A consideration of the offender’s character, criminal record, and any other relevant circumstances that mitigate against imposing capital punishment, such as the defendant’s youth, cooperation with the police, and emotional state at the time the crime was committed.
Many states resumed the death penalty under the Supreme Court’s standards in the Gregg decision and it remains legal today in 29 states. At the federal level, Congress formally reinstated capital punishment in 1988. Since then, however, only three people have been executed and a third of the death penalty states—along with the federal government and the U.S. military—haven’t carried out executions in at least 10 years or, in some cases, much longer. In fact, the governors of Oregon, Pennsylvania, and California have placed moratoriums on the use of the death penalty, even as their state capital punishment laws are still in place. In recent years, some states have legislatively abolished the death penalty, replacing it with a sentence of life imprisonment with no possibility for parole.
According to the 2018 annual Gallup poll of U.S. adults, fewer than half of Americans now believe the death penalty is fairly applied in the U.S. Many critics of the death penalty argue that it is plagued by racial bias, geographical arbitrariness, and disparities in the quality and funding of defense counsel.
For Bryan Stevenson, the famed civil rights attorney who was recently a guest on Stay Tuned, the threshold question isn’t about “whether people deserve to die for the crimes they’ve committed,” but rather, “do we deserve to kill” in a criminal justice system that lacks sufficient integrity and reliability.
Do we, as society, deserve to kill, even if the crime is so heinous that the offender deserves to die?
Is the death penalty consistent with “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society”?
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BIDEN’S SHIFT ON THE DEATH PENALTY
Former Vice President Joe Biden will take the stage later this evening to participate in the second presidential debate. Whether or not the candidates will debate criminal justice reform tonight remains to be seen, but Biden has already made strides to publicly address his “tough-on-crime” past that could haunt him in 2020.
Biden has recently come under fire for his role in helping to pass the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994—or the “1994 Crime Bill”—which includes the “Federal Death Penalty Act” provision that imposes the death penalty for 60 offenses under 13 existing and 28 newly-created federal capital statutes. The Democrats had used this law to respond to criticism that they were “soft” on crime, which is why then-President Bill Clinton victoriously hailed the law as “the toughest, largest, smartest federal attack on crime in the history of our country.”
Some 2020 candidates have criticized Biden’s past advocacy for the 1994 Crime Bill, including Senator Kamala Harris who stated that the law “contribute[d] to mass incarceration in our country,” and Senator Cory Booker who noted that it was “shameful” for its impact on “black and brown communities.” It’s worth noting that a majority of the Congressional Black Caucus voted in favor of the 1994 Crime Bill, a fact highlighted by those who argue the law unfolded in a different historical context and that it’s unfair to judge Biden’s support for the law then by today’s standards.
Last week, Biden released a criminal justice reform plan that sharply departs from his longtime support for capital punishment. The proposal aims to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example. Biden’s plan underscores the pervasive unreliability of death penalty sentencing, arguing that individuals condemned to death should instead serve life sentences without probation or parole.
THIS WEEK ON STAY TUNED
Michael Morell is this week’s guest on Stay Tuned. A 33-year veteran of the CIA, he served as the agency’s Deputy Director and twice as its Acting Director. He is currently a National Security Contributor for CBS News and host of the “Intelligence Matters” podcast.
In this sneak peek at the interview, Morell discusses the value of the public’s distrust of the spy agency:
I don’t want blind trust by the American people in the intelligence community. I think it’s healthy that the American people have some degree of mistrust. There’s a long history in our country, unfortunately, of the government abusing power. And so, I think it’s actually healthy in a democracy for there to be some mistrust. And without some degree of mistrust, we wouldn’t have the oversight that is in place to make sure that we live up to the law and our values.
Don’t forget to listen to this week’s episode. It drops this Thursday, August 1st.
The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) is perhaps the most comprehensive and authoritative internet resource on capital punishment. This non-profit organization does not take a formal position on the issue, and instead promotes informed discussion of the death penalty by preparing in-depth summaries, conducting briefings for journalists, and releasing an annual report with the latest issue developments and statistics. Keep up with the national conversation by following @DPInfoCtr!
MUELLER TESTIMONY AFTERMATH
If you haven’t already, listen to the latest episode of the CAFE Insider podcast: “Mueller Testimony Aftermath.” Preet and Anne discuss former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s marathon congressional testimony last week, Trump’s pick to lead the Office of Director of National Intelligence, the reinstatement of the federal death penalty, and more.
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