I was inclined to think that the new Rasmussen poll showing Greg Abbott with a mere 8-point lead against Wendy Davis was an outlier until yesterday, when the campaign issued a statement dinging her as “out-of-touch with Texans” after the Houston Chronicle reported that in 2000, as a member of Fort Worth City Council, she had voted in favor of a resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty pending further study and possible changes. Today, Davis says that she supports capital punishment, and the Abbott campaign is suggesting that her previous support for the moratorium gives the lie to that. Her professed change of heart, the statement argues, is just a matter of political expediency, given that a whopping majority of Texans support the death penalty. Capital punishment is one of the relatively few policy areas where Texan public opinion is markedly more conservative than national attitudes. About three-quarters of Texans support the death penalty, as do about 60% of Texas Democrats, and, strikingly, 60% of African-Americans, a result that Rodger Jones puzzled over in the Dallas Morning News earlier this year.This is both silly and slightly sinister on Abbott’s part. Silly because–although it’s not entirely clear to me whether Davis stands accused of opposing capital punishment or of flip-flopping or both–the evidence is flimsy. The resolution called for Texas’s use of the death penalty to be examined, not abolished. (Also worth noting: it didn’t pass, and Fort Worth City Council resolutions have no binding power in the Lege, so the whole thing posed no real risk to the provision of justice.) 

More significantly, this was fourteen years ago. The intervening years have been eventful and her campaign spokesman’s response this week–that her misgivings about the death penalty had been resolved–is completely plausible. Texas has passed a number of reforms since 2000–bipartisan reforms, signed by Rick Perry–that relate to the concerns at hand in the Fort Worth City Council meeting. The first that came to my mind is that in 2005, Texas authorized life without parole as a punishment for capital murder. That was a major reform that resulted in an immediate reduction in the number of death sentences handed down each year, as juries were spared the heavy choice of sending a fellow human being to the execution chamber or risk putting a murderer back on the streets. Other reforms include the provision of state funds for indigent defense and for DNA testing that has led to dozens of exonerations, including for people wrongly convicted of murder. Those are a couple of reasons why Perry got a surprisingly high grade for criminal justice on the report card we issued this summer. If Davis had qualms about the death penalty in 2000 and has come to the terms with the practice today, that’s evidence of critical thinking, not flip-flopping.  

And that’s why Abbott’s attack has a slightly sinister dimension, too. Is he the thought police now? Are we all okay with thought policing? Because that’s what this is. He’s criticizing Davis for a vote she cast fourteen years ago in favor of a nonbinding resolution calling for further study of a fairly serious issue. It’s already the case that elected officials in both parties are far too often skittish about questioning the party line because they’re afraid of the political fallout. The blame for that, to be clear, falls squarely on them. But it’s hardly in the public interest to encourage our politicians to act like chickens.  

(AP Image / Eric Gay )