Death-Penalty Politics

CRIME and law enforcement are important state issues. No elected officials should be ``soft'' on crime. But the recent trend in state governor's races toward using the death penalty as the No. 1 issue - where candidates fall over each other in a pro-death penalty frenzy - is not the height of American politics. Rather, it seems like cheap, tabloid politics. The death penalty is a top issue in Texas, California, and Florida gubernatorial primaries this spring. No doubt it will spread to other states as well. In California, former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein has become an ardent pro-death-penalty candidate - and, combined with a pro-choice stand, finds herself 19 points higher in the polls. Like Ms. Feinstein, many Democrats are expected to show they can be as tough on crime as Republicans.

In Florida, Gov. Bob Martinez appears to be using the death penalty as a way to recover from damage he took in opposing abortion. In the Texas primary, Democrats Mark White and Jim Mattox used it as a way to distance themselves from early favorite Ann Richards.

Certainly these are standard political tactics. Certainly the death penalty is an issue honest people can disagree on.

Yet there's a crude and even slightly barbarous ``dumbing-down'' quality to much of the discourse - particularly campaign ads - on the issue. Candidates are rushing to find ways to let voters know that they will execute more criminals faster than their opponents. Is this something to be proud of? Does this make for intelligent leadership? It's another example of politicians following polls and playing to passions.

Two problems stand out in death penalty politics:

First, the illusion created by tough talk. Running volatile ads, or telling voters you are eager to sign death sentences, doesn't translate into an intelligent anti-crime program. Tough talk can't substitute for substance. Moreover, the death penalty has never been proven to deter crime.

Second, further discussion is often blocked off. Candidates don't score points for discussing actual merits and demerits of capital punishment, or, say, for the General Accounting Office study last month showing racial discrimination on death sentences. What about the possibility of executing an innocent person? Should there be instances of pardon - as in the case of Joseph Giarratano in Virginia, who on death row has become something of a legal scholar.

These are issues that tabloid politics resists. Heinous crimes need to be punished. So do dangerous criminals. But voters should recognize death penalty politics for the subterfuge it is.

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