Shortly before her heavily publicized speech on foreign policy -- a speech that was so certain to monopolize media attention that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) used it as cover for his endorsement of Donald Trump -- Hillary Clinton finally gave the Huffington Post an answer to a question on which the outlet had been pressing her.
Last week, the Justice Department announced that it would seek the death penalty for Dylann Roof, who is accused of shooting nine people at a church in Charleston, S.C., last June. Bernie Sanders's campaign quickly told the Huffington Post that he opposes the move because he opposes the death penalty. But Clinton hadn't taken a position one way or another until Thursday afternoon. At that point, right before the big speech, a spokesman told HuffPo that "she respects the Justice Department decision."
In other words, that she supports the use of the death penalty in the case.
That's out of step with the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Most Americans support the death penalty, even as support for the tactic has slipped. In the most recent General Social Survey, conducted in 2014, only "strong Democrats," "liberal" and "extremely liberal" respondents were more likely to oppose the death penalty than support it.
Put another way: The people who were least supportive of Clinton in the primary are the ones who likely will most disagree with this move.
It's natural to assume that this is perhaps a move back to the center, after being pulled to the left by Sanders for months. That after having essentially secured the Democratic nomination, she's now taking more general-election-electorate-friendly position on the death penalty that wouldn't have served her well in the primary.
But that's not the case. Clinton has long supported the death penalty. In a debate in New Hampshire in February, she made that point explicitly, saying that, particularly in federal terrorism cases, she thought the use of the punishment was appropriate. "I do for very limited, particularly heinous crimes believe it is an appropriate punishment," she said, "but I deeply disagree with the way that too many states are still implementing it. If it were possible to separate the federal from the state system by the Supreme Court, that would, I think, be an appropriate outcome."
That debate coincided with the feud between Sanders and Clinton over who was more progressive. On a number of issues, including the death penalty, she is clearly more centrist than Sanders, and has been since the campaign began.
So there's a flip side to the question. Why quietly announce approval of the Roof decision when it was bound to be blanketed by other coverage? Because of California.
A Field Poll conducted in January found that 60 percent of Democrats in that state thought that the death penalty should be eliminated -- including three-quarters of "strongly liberal" respondents. Clinton has all but wrapped up the nomination, but would very much like to seal her inevitable delegate victory with a victory in the biggest, bluest state in the union next Tuesday. So although her position (a) isn't out of step with her past pronouncements and (b) wouldn't hurt her in a general election, it won't do her much good over the next five days.
Clinton is eager to move on to the general-election campaign. But her quiet acquiescence Thursday serves as a reminder that she can't do that entirely just yet.
Source: The Washington Post, The Fix, Philip Bump, June 2, 2016