When President Donald Trump’s attorney general William Barr announced an end to the Obama-era moratorium on the federal death penalty, pundits and the press were shocked.
Maybe they should have talked to a pollster.
Just days earlier, the new NPR/Marist poll found that only 36 percent of Americans support abolishing the death penalty, while 58 percent oppose a ban. This is hardly a surprise. Support for executing murderers has averaged 60 percent over the past decade in Gallup polling, and they’ve never found majority support for a death penalty ban going back to 1937.
“Congress has expressly authorized the death penalty through legislation adopted by the people’s representatives in both houses of Congress and signed by the President,” Barr said in a statement. “The Justice Department upholds the rule of law—and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
Is it a coincidence that the White House made this move the day after Democratic front-runner Joe Biden released his criminal justice plan that reverses decades of support for the death penalty? And with Biden’s shift on the issue, there’s just one 2020 candidate left— Montana Gov. Steve Bullock—who sides with the pro-capital punishment majority.
Even if the tide is turning against the death penalty in the abstract (though there’s no evidence that it is), the specifics of this story are terrible for Democrats. One of the five federal criminals who now faces execution by the Trump administration is white supremacist Daniel Lewis Lee, convicted of murdering an entire family, including an 8-year-old little girl.
Does any Democrat with a chance of being the party’s presidential nominee really want to fight for this murderer’s life?
With Sen. Bernie Sanders protecting not just the life of the Boston Marathon terror bomber but his right to vote as well, embracing the death penalty is a political no-brainer for President Trump.
The bad news for Democrats is that the death penalty is just one of several high-profile issues where their party is out of step with the American people. That same Marist poll found Americans also hate the Democrats’ #MedicareForAll plan to end private health insurance, 55 to 40 percent. And they really hate the Democrats’ proposal to give free health care to illegal immigrants, rejecting it by a 30-point margin (62 to 32 percent). If that sounds bad, voters oppose the Democrats’ proposal to decriminalize illegal border crossings by 40 percent.
Every major 2020 Democratic candidate supports at least one of these proposals, and many (Sanders, Warren, and Harris, among others) support them all. Throw in reparations for slavery and Universal Basic Income, two other ideas that are part of the Democrats’ 2020 debate, and the party is offering voters a plethora of unpopular proposals.
Why? Because they are popular among Democratic primary voters. For example:
- 55% of Democrats support abolishing the death penalty.
- 60% of Democrats support national health insurance available for illegals.
- 45% of Democrats support (while 47% oppose) decriminalizing illegal border crossings.
And then there’s the unpopular issue progressive Democrats push most aggressively: impeachment. Even as former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s widely-panned performance was declared a setback for impeachment efforts, Democrats like House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler wanted to press ahead. According to a report in Politico, “Nadler pushed to launch impeachment proceedings” the morning after Mueller’s testimony, “only to be rebuffed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi.”
Warren, Sanders and several other 2020 candidates continue to demand Democrats move ahead on impeachment in the face of polls showing two-thirds of Americans oppose it–in particular voters in swing districts. And once again, for the same reason: their progressive base wants it.
The same day Mueller was testifying, the NAACP unanimously passed a resolution calling for the House to begin impeachment proceedings. African-American voters are a key part of the Democratic primary coalition. And Democrats overall are twice as likely to support impeachment as the average voter.
Thus the dilemma: To win the nomination, 2020 hopefuls have to appease this progressive base. But the issues that inspire them are unpopular with the general electorate as a whole.
Every time President Trump can take the attention off of his relatively low popularity and get the focus on issues such as illegal immigration or the death penalty, his fortunes improve.
Which is why nobody should be surprised by Bill Barr’s “surprising” death-penalty decision.