Asked the biggest difference between himself and George W. Bush, Texas governor and new Republican White House front runner Rick Perry answered, "I went to Texas A&M. He went to Yale." Which isn't far from the truth. After all, their pronouncements on policies and personal beliefs are eerily similar. And when it comes to donning the executioner's hood in the death penalty mecca that is Texas, Rick Perry and George W. Bush are almost indistinguishable.
As the Washington Post documented, Governor Perry is America's reigning death penalty champion, exceeding the body count of his predecessor in Austin:
In his nearly 11 years as the state's chief executive, Perry, now running for the Republican presidential nomination, has overseen more executions than any governor in modern history: 234 and counting. That's more than the combined total in the next two states -- Oklahoma and Virginia -- since the death penalty was restored 35 years ago.
Perry's apparent enthusiasm for Texas' popular death penalty process doesn't end there:
He vetoed a bill that would have spared the mentally retarded, and sharply criticized a Supreme Court ruling that juveniles were not eligible for the death penalty. He has found during his tenure only one inmate on Texas's crowded death row he thought should receive the lesser sentence of life in prison.
If this all sounds hauntingly familiar, it should. During the 2000 campaign, Americans were introduced to another Texas governor who was unapologetic about condemning his state's residents to death.
George W. Bush carried out 152 executions during his days as Governor of Texas, sparing only one death row inmate after his routine 15 minute clemency review. Even those similarly adopting Jesus as their favorite philosopher could expect no leniency from Bush. When his allies on the religious right pressured him to spare murderess turned jailhouse born-again Christian Karla Faye Tucker, Governor Bush displayed his trademark resolve - and compassion. As Time recounted in 1999:
Tucker Carlson of Talk magazine described the smirk Bush wore as he mimicked convicted murderer turned Christian Karla Faye Tucker begging, "Please don't kill me," something she never actually did.
Bush's seeming bloodlust towards criminal defendants almost derailed his 2000 presidential campaign. During his second debate against Al Gore in October 2000, Bush was asked about his position on hate crimes laws in the wake of the brutal dragging death of African-American James Byrd in his home state of Texas. His disturbing response - accompanied by a sickening grin - produced gasps among the audience:
"The three men who murdered James Byrd, guess what's going to happen to them? They're going to be put to death. A jury found them guilty. It's going to be hard to punish them any worse after they get put to death."
Even the tone-deaf Bush sensed he had crossed the line. In the third debate, he wisely retreated, acknowledging he was "not proud" of Texas' number one ranking in executions.
As President, George W. Bush maintained his hard line towards criminals and upholding their punishments. His administration argued - unsuccessfully - before the Supreme Court that developmentally-disabled and under-18 death row inmates too deserve their chance at the gallows. Attorney General Gonzales announced that the Bush department of Justice would push for new, harsher mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in the wake of the Supreme Court's Booker decision. Shortly before his resignation, Gonzales unveiled new federal regulations enabling the Attorney General to "fast-track" executions in state capital punishment cases.
If anything, Rick Perry has been even more zealous than George W. Bush when it comes to flipping the switch on Texas' death row inmates. While President Bush sought to intervene in 2007 on behalf of Jose Ernesto Medellin and 50 other Mexican citizens facing execution in Texas, Governor Perry took the other side and won:
Still, Perry has been an aggressive advocate. He battled the Bush administration in the Supreme Court when the president tried to force state courts to review the death sentences of 51 Mexican nationals who had not been allowed to consult Mexican authorities.
The court ruled in Perry's favor, 6 to 3.
More disturbing still, Perry's dead men walking has apparently included innocent men. As the Post reported, "death penalty opponents say 12 men on Texas's death row have been exonerated." And as Mother Jones detailed:
He refused to stay the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, and, after the fact, when the evidence began to overwhelmingly suggest that Willingham had been innocent, he replaced three members of the commission that had been reviewing the case. (Perry stands by the execution, insisting that Willingham was a "monster.") After two decades on death row, Anthony Graves was released only after a lengthy investigation from Texas Monthly showed that he had been wrongfully convicted.
For Perry, the Graves case was a feature and not a bug. "He's a good example of, you continue to find errors that were made and clear them up," Perry told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. "So I think our system works well."
George W. Bush couldn't have said it better.
(This piece also appears at Perrspectives.)