The Washington Times

The big news from a recent major survey of Americans’ views on religion and politics conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press is the growing “liberalization” of public opinion on social issues.

Not so long ago, there was a significant segment of opinion that was conservative on social issues but distinctly not evangelical Christian in religious view. It would be an overstatement to call this group “secular” social conservatives, in that those voicing these views [like the overwhelming majority of Americans] profess religious belief. But they are surely more secular than their evangelical fellow believers. And without becoming more secular still, they seem to be turning away from socially conservative views, leaving these increasingly the province of evangelicals.

The political implications here may be serious. The Republican Party has a tall order on its hands, namely, management of a transition away from a party in which conservatism on social issues could sit comfortably front and center as a reflection of not only the opinion of an overwhelming majority within the party, but also the “secular” social conservatism of Americans more broadly. Democrats stand to benefit from any GOP bungling of this transition but also face risks to the extent the GOP gets it right: Rather than being the organic home for those with moderate to liberal social views, Democrats would face competition from a less socially conservative GOP.

The changing contour of American opinion is in some respects quite subtle. Consider as an example support for the death penalty. A June 1996 Pew survey pegged overall support at 78 percent, with 18 percent opposed. As of the July 2003 survey, support for the death penalty was down to 64 percent overall. I have been keeping an eye on this erosion for a number of years, and I was expecting September 11 to have the effect of ratcheting support back up, if not all the way to the levels of the 1996 survey. I was wrong. It didn’t. The decreases continue.

The intensity of support has also changed. In 1996, 43 percent of Americans said they “strongly” favored the death penalty [with 35 percent merely saying “favor”]. By July 2003, only 28 percent said they “strongly favor” it, with 36 percent saying merely “favor.”

Among white Americans, 81 percent supported the death penalty in 1996; 69 percent do so today. Support among evangelicals has dipped slightly in this period, from 82 percent to 76 percent. But among mainline Protestants, support has dropped from 85 percent to 70 percent; among Catholics, from 79 percent to 69 percent.

Meanwhile, a racial element has emerged in the issue: In 1996, African-Americans were majority supporters of the death penalty, 54 percent in favor to 36 percent opposed. In 2003, those percentages were roughly reversed, with 39 percent of blacks now in favor, 55 percent opposed. Support among Hispanics has also fallen precipitously, from 75 percent in favor in 1996 to 50 percent in favor this year.

Now, support for the death penalty remains, of course, still quite high, more than 2-1 in favor overall. A politician without conviction on the issue [if I may be permitted to imagine such a character], certainly might still want to position himself as a supporter of the death penalty in courting voters.

But I think such a politician would be ill-advised to position himself as a gung-ho supporter of the death penalty – as someone who thinks, for example, that the death penalty should be applied in far more cases than it is, that the appeals process in capital cases drags on way too long, that even in being executed these vile murderers are getting far better than they deserve, that each additional execution deters additional murders, and that the best way to deal with the supposed racial disparity in executions would be to execute more white killers.

On the contrary, our hypothetically “pure” [i.e., convictionless] politician would be better served by striking a pose of reluctant support: Of course, we must be exceedingly careful in the use of this ultimate sanction, and we should do everything in our power to ensure that all capital sentences are carefully reviewed. We must be extremely sensitive to the fairness with which the death penalty is sought and obtained; but nevertheless, on balance, some crimes are so heinous that the death penalty is appropriate.

In 1988, Michael Dukakis blew up what remained of his electoral prospects against George H.W. Bush with a hopelessly off-key response to a question posed by CNN’s Bernard Shaw: “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the murderer?” Mr. Dukakis, without reference to his wife, bloodlessly reiterated his life-long opposition to the death penalty. In January 1992, by contrast, Bill Clinton conspicuously left the campaign trail to return to Arkansas to preside over the execution of a retarded man who had killed a cop.

I think you would still lose an election with the Dukakis approach, but you might no longer need the Clinton approach to win one.