General-Election Obama and the Death Penalty

Why did Barack Obama disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy v. Louisiana? “I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes,” Obama said at a news conference yesterday in response to the Justices’ 5-4 decision to ban the death penalty for child rapists. “I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances the death penalty is at least potentially applicable that that does not violate our Constitution.” The Court could have left room for exceptions in egregious cases, he explained, “but it basically had a blanket prohibition, and I disagree with the decision.”

This from a guy who wrote in his memoir that the death penalty “does little to deter crime,” who as a State Senator helped tighten up Illinois’s approach to capital punishment in an attempt to prevent the state from sending innocent people to die (he served as a legislator under Governor Jim Ryan, who eventually imposed a moratorium when he learned that innocent people in fact were dying), and who opposed a bill that would have permitted the death penalty for gang-related murders.

Obama is no abolitionist; he has long held that the death penalty is appropriate in a small number of extraordinary cases. So, fair enough, he’s staying true to his principles. But surely as a candidate he could have seized the opportunity to validate his Democratic base by commending the Court for its prudent judgment. It wouldn’t have been a stretch for him to agree with Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote for the majority that there is “a distinction between intentional first-degree murder on the one hand and nonhomicide crimes against individual persons,” and that the latter, albeit devastating and horrid, does not pass the “egregious” test.

So what’s going on here? My best guess: Obama is brandishing his credentials as a “tough guy” Democrat and protecting himself from Swiftboat-style attacks against him as a “soft on crime,” criminal-coddling, Weatherman-hobnobbing radical. Already Floyd Brown, the nasty creator of the Willie Horton smears, has run ads assaulting Obama for his vote on gang-related murders. The threat from these guys is real, and Obama is right to steel himself for a below-the-belt fight. Again, fair enough… to a point. My concern, though, is that we’re seeing some strong and unmistakable–and, in my opinion, unmistakably troubling–early signals of a major Obama pivot heading into the general-election campaign.

There are two Obamas: Primary Obama and General-election Obama. And, unfortunately, there seems to be increasing distance between their stances on critical issues. Primary Obama was the progressive alternative to Hillary’s same-old insiderdom, the change we can believe in, a new way forward. General-election Obama is shaping up to be cut from a similar cloth as the past few (losing) Democratic presidential contenders: centrist on trade, regulation and taxes; weak-kneed and/or unprincipled on key legislation; in bed with big money and special interests; overly consulted on messaging (witness his botched apology to the Muslim women who were not allowed to stand behind him at a recent rally); insecure about toughness and thereby dangerously muscular on foreign policy and criminal justice.

A few warning signs from the past few weeks: General-election Obama broke Primary Obama’s pledge to accept public financing as a presidential candidate. General-election Obama is deploying Primary Obama’s rhetoric opposing the Patriot Act but nevertheless supporting a Senate bill that would extend Bush-era surveillance tactics and grant immunity to telecoms that enable warrantless wiretaps. Contrary to antiwar Primary Obama’s preference for diplomacy, General-election Obama wants to drop the Iraq surge in favor of unilateral intervention in Pakistan, and in one of his first appearances after defeating Clinton in the primaries, he promised AIPAC that he would do “everything in my power” to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

And now, following the Kennedy v. Louisiana ruling, General-election Obama has sided with the conservative Justices on the Supreme Court who dissented on a decision to narrow the use of the death penalty.

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