Frame Game

The New Death Penalty

Last Friday on Iowa Public Television, George W. Bush was asked to summarize the message of his campaign. “I understand governments don’t create wealth,” Bush began. “Governments create an environment in which entrepreneurship and producers can flourish. That’s why I support cutting the tax rates. That’s why I support getting rid of the death penalty.”

Hold it right there. Did Bush just say he’s against the death penalty? And what on earth does that have to do with creating wealth?

He did say it, and it has everything to do with creating wealth. A few years ago, Republicans not only supported the death penalty; they campaigned on a promise to apply it more often. Days after the GOP’s victory in the 1994 elections, Speaker-to-be Newt Gingrich pledged to bring every plank of the “Contract With America” to the House floor, including “an effective, enforceable death penalty; beginning to phase-out the marriage penalty in the tax code; allowing senior citizens to earn up to $39,000 a year without penalty from Social Security; a capital gains cut and indexing.”

Along the way, the two “penalties” merged. Republicans began to use the phrase “death penalty,” like the phrase “marriage penalty,” to describe a tax pegged to one of life’s most sacred passages. The inheritance tax, which had been known as the “estate tax,” became the “death tax”–which in turn, by association with the hated “marriage penalty,” became the “death penalty.”

Two years ago, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce he would do something about “unfair” taxes, starting with the “death penalty.” Four weeks ago, House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, declared on Fox News that Congress could use the surplus to address “a serious unfairness in the tax code, such as the marriage penalty, the death penalty, taxes on senior citizens.” Last weekend, Bush adopted the same phrase.

The transformation of the inheritance tax into the “death penalty” provides more grist for satirists who wonder whether Republicans, having condemned the “marriage penalty” for discouraging marriage, now worry that the inheritance tax is discouraging death. (For a head start on the satire, check out the work of Slate necro-economists Jodie T. Allen and David Plotz.) But the true import of the new “death penalty” is the demise of the old one. In 1994, Bush, Lott, and Armey would never have called the inheritance tax the “death penalty,” because the death penalty meant something else. Today, they can speak out against the “death penalty” without confusion or irony–and without being asked for clarification–because the traditional meaning of that phrase is no longer plausible. Capital punishment is no longer a live issue.

What killed it? Two things: Incomes went up, and crime went down. Americans stopped feeling scared and started feeling comfortable. The GOP stopped talking about saving your life and started talking about your life savings. As for Democrats, they don’t complain much about the death penalty anymore. The last guy who did that was Michael Dukakis, and look what happened to him. Now every serious politician either supports the death penalty and makes a show of it, as Bill Clinton has, or keeps his mouth shut.

The old death penalty debate was profound and heated. Liberals called the practice murder. Conservatives called it the only fitting punishment for unspeakable crimes. It was a moral struggle of the highest consequence. But these days, unspeakable crimes are no longer spoken of, murder is what happens to your portfolio on a bad day, “family values” are debated through the Internal Revenue code, and the “death penalty” is a tax issue. It may be a perfectly worthy topic in an age of affluence. But it’s hardly a matter of life and death.