I have been studying death penalty politics (as well as law) for decades, largely because I've had to. The death penalty bedeviled Democratic candidates in the '80s and '90s, and its repercussions are still felt today. Back then, the public was for it. But it was more than that. Law and order, Nixon's 1968 rallying cry, turned crime into a race issue, pure and simple. Willie Horton turned crime into a values issue. Same thing, really. Whose side are you on?
Bill Clinton didn't go near it. He broke off campaigning in 1992 to return to Arkansas to preside over an execution. The convict, when served his last supper, reportedly replied that he would save it "for later."
I got it. No one gave me more support during the difficult days of 1988 when my candidate would not respond to the racially tinged attacks of the Democrats. Every day, he parsed the dropping poll numbers. He'd explained it to me years before. The death penalty was a killer for Democrats.
A lot of bad laws got passed by Democrats desperate not to be called soft on crime. More and more prisons got built, as prison cells become nursing beds for lifetime residents. States rushed to perfect their death penalty laws, and cases became almost routine. But there were enough high-profile mistakes and enough stories about how death row — with its endless appeals and special treatment and extra protection for inmates with nothing to lose — was actually more expensive than execution that support began to drop for the death penalty in America.
Barack Obama was the first president in recent times to oppose the death penalty. It wasn't even much of an issue.
Indeed, a number of states started putting moratoriums on the death penalty, as did California Gov. Gavin Newsom last fall, and there was surprisingly little outrage, even though voters had actually rejected a referendum that would have barred the death penalty.
So why, you might ask, with public opinion turning against the death penalty, did Attorney General William Barr announce last week that the federal government would be resuming the death penalty on Dec. 9, with four more executions scheduled after that leading up to the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries?
Simple: Because the death penalty is not just a theoretical question. I've long been against the death penalty, and I know the criminal justice system's weakness too well, but when I was very pregnant and a murderer was caught on camera shooting a pregnant mother right through the stomach and the cops caught him and we watched the video, we were ready to kill him ourselves.
The first man scheduled to die on Dec. 9 is a white supremacist with a swastika on his throat that cannot be hid, who was hoping to secure a cache of guns to foment a revolution. He broke into a family's home in Arkansas in 1996 and suffocated the father, the mother and the 8-year-old daughter before throwing their bodies in the bayou, where they were found six months later. His best defense seems to be that his accomplice may have been the one to actually shoot the child after he killed her parents in front of her.
Wesley Purkey kidnapped a 16-year-old in Kansas, took her to his house, raped her repeatedly, killed her and then dismembered and burned her body. Earlier, he had used a hammer to kill an 80-year-old woman suffering from polio. He is scheduled to die on Dec. 13.
"Tell me, senator, governor, congressman, Mr. vice president, does Wesley Purkey deserve to live?"
Alfred Bourgeois tortured and killed his 2-year-old daughter. His own daughter. Continuous torture.
Dustin Honken killed two men who planned to testify against him, as well as one of the men's girlfriends and her 6- and 10-year-old daughters.
His execution is scheduled for Jan. 15.
The problem with the death penalty is that it's easy to be against it until confronted with the most heinous evil you can contemplate.
And in those moments, I think, the flip in the polls reflects the tensions in our hearts, not disrespect for life but holding it in the highest reverence.
You can't just say, "No, I'm against the death penalty" — as Michael Dukakis did at Polley Pavillion in 1988. You can't start quoting me numbers when I'm thinking of this man killing his daughter, this pregnant woman just like me standing at the ATM machine, holding her hands over her stomach to protect her baby.
This is what Trump wants us to be talking about in the days leading up to the primaries, and if he succeeds, we may end up sounding as out of touch with America as a good man did in Los Angles when asked whether he would support the death penalty for his wife's murderer.
Susan Estrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.