Political rope-a-dope: Reprise of federal executions

Political rope-a-dope: Reprise of federal executions
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Muhammad Ali coined it the “rope-a-dope” almost 50 years ago, but the political folks in the Trump Administration are proving themselves masters of the technique. The tactic is simple: You back yourself into a seemingly vulnerable position — on the ropes — luring your over-eager opponent to launch an ill-conceived attack, for which you’re ready. When he does, you maneuver as planned and pummel the exhausted would-be aggressor.

The Administration’s surprise announcement last week that it will start executing federal convicts again — after a 16 year pause — is a classic example. There was clearly no sudden urgency to kill convicts incarcerated in federal prison for decades; after all, it’s been almost a thousand days since the inauguration. Nor is the public somehow clamoring for more executions — only some 2 percent even see crime generally as the nation’s most important problem, Gallup says.

The more plausible explanation is that re-starting federal executions is pure political rope-a-dope — cleverly timed for this week’s Democratic debates, especially tonight’s top-of-the-card bout between former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial Sanders wants one-on-one fight with Biden MORE and Senators Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisCalifornia Democrat Christy Smith launches first TV ad in bid for Katie Hill's former House seat Steyer spokesperson: 'I don't think necessarily that Tom has bought anything' Biden wins endorsement of Sacramento mayor MORE (D-Calif.) and Corey Booker (D-N.J.), who will flank him onstage. Unless candidates start showing some atypical grandstanding restraint, the ploy could work well — on two levels.

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Angling for the support of progressive activists in primary contests, some Democratic presidential hopefuls have already taken the bait. They’re outdoing one another condemning the “moral outrage” of the death penalty and suggesting that supporting capital punishment — as a clear majority of registered voters do — is essentially supporting racism.

It’s a set-up. In their zeal to demonstrate moral rightness, or simply improve their chance to build profile in the crowded field, they’ve forgotten how the death penalty has proven to be a bear trap for Democrats since George H.W. Bush creamed Michael Dukakis. Not so for the party’s most recent leaders: Secretary Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCollins walks impeachment tightrope Hill.TV's Saagar Enjeti rips Sanders for 'inability to actually fight with bad actors' in party Hill.TV's Krystal Ball knocks Clinton's 'mean girl' comments against Sanders MORE, President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonTensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum Nadler gets under GOP's skin 'Emotion' from Trump's legal team wins presidential plaudits MORE, Vice President Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreGore praises Greta Thunberg after meeting: 'Nobody speaks truth to power as she does' Climate 'religion' is fueling Australia's wildfires NH Democratic Party chairman rips Bloomberg op-ed as 'desperate for some press attention' MORE all supported the death penalty in some cases, and President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama marks MLK Day by honoring King for his 'poetic brilliance' and 'moral clarity' Biden breaks away from 2020 pack in South Carolina National Archives says it altered Trump signs, other messages in Women's March photo MORE did not repudiate it.

Like any good wedge issue, the political potency of renewing federal executions far outstrips its day-to-day import for the broad electorate. Only 62 federal convicts — all found guilty of heinous crimes — are directly affected, and the issue is narrower than “the death penalty” generally, which is mainly a matter for each state, many of which have ended the practice. Timing the renewal announcement just a week before the Democratic debate, though, makes that divisive issue, one that would not otherwise merit precious debate time, a gotcha topic tough to resist.

Any Democratic debater who falls for it and wins the nomination can count on a modern-day reprise of Bush’s highly-effective Willie Horton advertisements that K.O.’d the “soft-on-crime” Massachusetts governor. No doubt the country will hear repeatedly and in gruesome detail the horrendous crimes committed by the five named child-murderers the Department of Justice wants to execute, and how bleeding-heart Dems prefer to “coddle” these monsters at taxpayer expense.

Better still from a GOP perspective, it’s an emotional wedge that promises to exacerbate the supposed split between Democratic progressives and the moderate voters the president needs to win re-election. And it’s tailor made for tonight’s expected reprise of the he’s-not-exactly-a-racist attacks on former Vice President Biden, who just happens to be the one Democrat consistently polling better than President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMnuchin knocks Greta Thunberg's activism: Study economics and then 'come back' to us The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial MORE head-to-head. It hardly matters that only one of the five convicts to be executed is Black. Biden has already been forced to back away from his “failure” to renounce the widely-supported death penalty earlier. Score one for the White House.

Democrats should call out the new rope-a-dope for what it is — another tactic to divide the electorate and energize “the base” with an emotional hot button issue of little consequence to Americans’ daily lives, doubly cynical when it involves the government’s solemn power over life and death. By refusing to take the bait and resisting the temptation to use federal executions against each other in a contest of moral purity, the Democratic contenders can hope to avoid going down for the count.

Mark Gerchick is a principal at Gerchick-Murphy, a strategic consulting firm focused on airlines and airports. He is a former acting Assistant Secretary of Aviation and International Affairs in Bill Clinton’s Department of Transportation (1994-1996) as well as former Chief Counsel for the Federal Aviation Administration. He has also served in volunteer roles in nearly every Democratic presidential campaign since Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterChris Matthews: 'Bugs Bunny' McConnell 'always gets away with' wrongdoing No patriotic poll bump for Trump, but Soleimani strike may still help him politically Political science has its limits when it comes to presidential prediction MORE, including as one of the team members managing Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential transition and doing legal work and convention delegate selection for the Michael Dukakis campaign. He is the author of “Full Upright and Locked Position.”