How Bush Can Energize Catholics (Even Pro-Gore Ones) and Attract Blacks

Memo to President George W. Bush:

Everyone else is giving you unsolicited advice, so I might as well stick my oar in the water too. I have an idea that will increase your support among people currently in your coalition, placate some of the people currently outside it and throw your enemies off balance. Why not appoint a blue-ribbon commission to study alternatives to the death penalty?

Present it as a bold pro-life initiative. You will increase your support among Catholics and blacks, and completely befuddle the radical left.

By most exit polls, you did well among Catholics who attend church at least once a week, but not well among Catholics who are less active. This divide in the Catholic vote corresponds to a number of cultural differences among Catholics, including the relative importance they place on the different aspects of the Church's pro-life teaching. The Church, famously, opposes abortion. More recently, Pope John Paul II has criticized capital punishment.

Catholics who voted for Gore are likely to endorse this aspect of the pro-life teaching, while finding the anti-abortion position more of a challenge. Meanwhile conservative, traditional Catholics strongly oppose abortion on demand but are challenged by the Holy Father's recent opposition to the death penalty. Your challenge, Mr. President, is to give the liberal Catholics reason to move toward your side. The Holy Father's nuanced position on capital punishment gives you an opportunity to build up the pro-life coalition from the left-leaning side of the political spectrum.

While affirming traditional Church teaching on states having the right to execute criminals, John Paul argues that, under modern conditions, the state hardly ever has an actual need to exercise this right. The state should not use the death penalty when more modest measures would fulfill the state's responsibility to protect society. Your blue-ribbon commission could take a sober-minded look at alternatives to capital punishment, taking the Pope's reasoning into account.

The traditional Catholics are already voting for you, Mr. President, and you are not likely to lose them by opening the question of the death penalty. It is the Gore Catholics you need to attract. Imagine your results if you had carried the Catholic vote the way Gore carried the black vote (90%), the Jewish vote, or even the homosexual vote (75%). No one would ever have heard of a dimpled chad.

Speaking of the black vote, you really need to do something dramatic if you hope to penetrate the radical left's hold on blacks.

In the aftermath of the election, The New York Times asked a wide variety of black public figures how you might reach out to black voters. Most of these prominent blacks cited the death penalty as one of the core issues.

You are not likely to appeal to them on their other favorite issues, like affirmative action. You can show them that you take the death penalty seriously, even if you don't endorse every aspect of their position. Racial disparities in executions are troubling to many people from across the political spectrum. Many blacks consider it literally a matter of life and death. This is one of the issues that a commission should examine with an open mind.

The death penalty touches on a whole complex of issues, including crime control, punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation. There are good reasons to oppose the death penalty and bad reasons to do so. Likewise there are good and thoughtful reasons to favor it, and bad and mindless reasons to favor it. It is hard to imagine that any two thoughtful people would analyze it in exactly the same way, and come to identical conclusions about it in every detail. This is precisely the feature that makes the death penalty amenable to serious discussion and coalition-building.

Ironically, the radical left has managed to turn capital punishment into a touchstone, knee-jerk issue. The “Free Mumia” crowd seems to think that every man on death row is an innocent lamb. The obvious subtext is that the entire criminal-justice system is unfair. That is exactly why it is so important that a good conservative administration take a bold initiative in this issue.

With a proper choice of panelists, you can steer this issue away from the control of the lunatic fringe and turn it into an opportunity for building good will among a seemingly unlikely coalition of religious figures from the right and civil rights activists from the left.

You could choose a couple of high-profile, no-nonsense pro-life Catholic clergymen who can articulate the Holy Father's position and apply it to the American context. Although pro-life evangelical Protestants tend to favor capital punishment, they will listen respectfully to the Catholic position. You need to appoint someone who can articulate that position. Prominent pro-life figures will prevent your commission from becoming a vehicle for the radical left.

But avoid the mistake Bill Clinton made when he appointed a panel to study race relations. Clinton packed the panel with his own people, and assiduously avoided iconoclasts like Ward Connerly. You can do better, Mr. President. Choose some level-headed civil libertarians, and a few moderate black leaders. Pick outspoken advocates and opponents of the death penalty. Select a few people with extensive experience in law enforcement.

You will increase your political capital among groups where you are relatively weak. You won't lose anybody, since the people who strongly favor the death penalty probably support you already.

Your opponents have pegged you as an avid supporter of the death penalty, since you presided over so many executions in Texas. No one will expect you to open this question. Your opponents will be thrown into confusion. And flummoxing your enemies is just a side benefit of doing the right thing.

Jennifer Roback Morse, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, welcomes e-mail at [email protected]