Comparisons between Rick Perry and George W. Bush have become routine since the current governor announced his presidential campaign. It's a natural assumption given their shared conservative credentials and Texas backgrounds. But at last night's debate, Perry showed himself to be even more extreme than Bush in at least one area: their description of the death penalty. Where Bush's 2000 rhetoric strove to portray him as considered and deliberate before executing a criminal, Perry's image was that of a cold-blooded killer last night.
When Perry was asked if he ever "struggled to sleep at night" about the 234 executions during his watch, Perry left no doubt that he's resting just fine:
I’ve never struggled with that at all … in the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you’re involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed.
Perry's answer may have had a somber, serious tone, but it was abundantly clear that he takes pride in Texas-style justice. The crowd ate up every word, cheering at Perry's defense of the death penalty. Keep in mind, this was not a question of whether Perry values the death penalty in general but just if he ever has second thoughts. The power of death is the most grave and menacing capability granted to the government. Perry's complete lack of hesitance and consideration should give voters of all stripes hesitation over Perry's campaign. Liberals and conservatives alike want their politicians to carefully weigh the use of lethal force, but Perry brings glibness to the possibility that his state has executed innocent lives. It is not hard to consider that at least some of those 234 individuals were innocent. The New Yorker's chilling profile of Cameron Todd Willingham in 2009 made clear that there is at least one likely innocent man put to death under Perry's watch. And late last week the Texas Tribune compiled a handy list of cases under doubt, ranging from executions of juvenile offenders to instances of mental incapacitation.
Perry's answer is a noticeable break from his predecessor at the Texas Capitol. Bush was no moderate when it came to executions, overseeing 152 when he was governor of Texas, a faster rate per year than Perry. But Bush's tenor couldn't have been more different on the topic. At a 2000 townhall debate, one audience member asked Bush if he took pride in Texas's status as the state with the highest number of executions. "No, I’m not proud of that," Bush said. "The death penalty is very serious business, Leo. It’s an issue that good people obviously disagree on. I take my job seriously, and if you think I was proud of it, I think you misread me."
Watch the exchange below:
When moderator Jim Lehrer asked if the death penalty worked as a deterrent, Bush said, "I do -- that's the only reason to be for it. I don't think you should support the death penalty to seek revenge. I don't think that's right." On Wednesday, Perry ticked off a list of heinous crimes, reveling in his reputation of the phrase "ultimate justice"; it was a scene more reminiscent of a character in a Tarantino film than a restrained effort at deterrence.
Rick Perry may have "never struggled" with the question, but in 2000 Bush was apparently losing some sleep on the issue. "There have been some tough cases come across my desk," he said at that debate, "some of the hardest moments since I've been the governor of the state of Texas is to deal with those cases."
For the liberals who thought things could never get worse than the Bush presidency, meet your 2012 Republican front-runner.