Hillary's next flip-flop: the death penalty?

With so many other controversies sucking all of the oxygen out of the room, the nascent 2016 campaign hasn’t offered much time for candidates to stake out and clarify their positions on some of the traditional, “old news” issues which crop up every election cycle. Sooner or later, though, they’re all going to face some of these perennial questions. One of them is the issue of the death penalty, which renewed its position as a controversial subject following several “botched” executions over the past two years. (I still fail to see how an execution is really “botched” if the killer winds up dead.) Politico’s Adam Lerner wonders if this will wind up being the next subject where Hillary Clinton will flip-flop on her position.

As a young lawyer, Hillary Clinton helped save a mentally handicapped black man from the electric chair. This is not a fact she has promoted in her years as a tough-on-crime U.S. senator or amid her quest to become the Democratic presidential candidate in 2016.

POLITICO discovered her role buried in an appeal to save Henry Giles, a convicted murderer, back in 1976, when Clinton headed the legal aid clinic at the University of Arkansas. A brief filed by the Cummins Prison Project, a law school effort to defend prisoners at one of Arkansas’s most notorious prisons, played an important role in winning leniency for Giles because of his mental impairment, court documents show.

Hillary Clinton’s involvement in the case illustrates a profound shift in her views over time on an issue she last discussed publicly in her 2000 race for the U.S. Senate. Her comments then — that the death penalty had her “unenthusiastic support” — riled the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The death penalty poses a complicated issue for Clinton, whose husband, Bill Clinton, carried out executions as Arkansas governor and loudly defended capital punishment as he sought to establish himself as a law-and-order Democrat during his 1992 White House bid.

The Giles case wasn’t some one off trial where Clinton was forced to provide the best defense available for a client (as all trial lawyers must do from time to time) but rather a campaign intended to move national policy. Henry Giles is still in prison today, serving life for the murder of a shoe store clerk. As the Politico article describes it, Clinton was an active participant in a blanket effort to force Arkansas to reexamine the death penalty and to roll it back. It was in keeping with the pristine liberal credentials she brought to her new home when she followed her soon-to-be husband there after publishing her Wellesley thesis on Saul Alinsky.

But by the time she was First Lady of Arkansas (and later of the United States) continuing through her campaign for a Senate seat in New York, she described herself as an “unenthusiastic” supporter of the practice. Was this a case of a politician’s views “evolving” over time or simply swapping out her talking points to suit the mood of the public at that given hour? And more to the point, where is she today? There’s been virtually no record of any comments from her since roughly 2000, but the day is coming when she’ll have to take a position one way or the other.

Hillary Clinton has already flipped her views on gay marriage, immigration reform, domestic energy production, drivers licenses for illegal immigrants, gun control and who knows how many other things at this point. In some ways it might be hard to debate Clinton on any major issues of the day because she’s held essentially every possible position on all of them at one time or another.

Capital punishment is less popular than ever with Clinton’s base these days and if she had any serious competition for the Democrats’ nomination there would be somebody asking her about it today. (Sorry, Bernie Sanders, but you don’t count.) What will she say this time? Stay tuned, and make sure you have your cameras running. Her next position may not last very long.