In the 1988 election, the National Security Political Action Committee ran a spot known familiarly as the “Willie Horton ad” in the presidential campaign to defeat Michael Dukakis. In it, the Massachusetts governor was attacked for his role in administering the state’s weekend furlough program for prisoners by connecting him to an inmate (Horton) who had committed assault, armed robbery, and rape while out. The ad, featuring an extended look at Horton’s mugshot, was perceived as so race-baiting that the Bush campaign itself kept its fingerprints off of it. “The Willie Horton ad” in contemporary politics-speak is shorthand for what we’ll call a racially questionable low blow best left to outside entities like (super) PACs.
Even though the ability to outsource dicey hit jobs to independent expenditure groups is greater than ever in 2016, the Republican Party itself now appears to be comfortable with putting out “Willie Horton-style” attack ads with their fingerprints directly on them. This is according to the Republican Party itself! The Republican National Committee has produced a web ad hitting Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine ahead of Tuesday’s debate on themes similar to those in the infamous Horton ad. Roll Call, the first outlet to write up the clip, went with the headline “Republicans Launch Willie Horton-Style Attack on Kaine.” Sean Spicer, spokesman for the RNC, appeared to fancy this description:
As did the Republican Party itself!
Sure, Spicer—who has since deleted the tweet—was just using the “share article” tool. But … maybe he shouldn’t have?
The web ad itself is of the tiresome “lawyer defended bad people” genre, which is always pathetic whether Democrats or Republicans are doing it. Kaine, a devout Catholic, accepted some of the worst clients as a young lawyer to protect them against the death penalty, frequently representing them pro bono. He also commuted a prisoner’s death sentence as Virginia governor after determining that he wasn’t mentally competent.
These are old attacks that have never prevented Kaine from winning statewide election in Virginia and it’s hard to imagine them hurting Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the presidency now. Moral questionability of the “Willie Horton” ad aside, at least in 1988 hitting someone hard for being “soft on crime” had real political numbers behind it: Crime was far worse than it is today and support for the death penalty was overwhelmingly high. As the Pew Research Center reported just last week, though, “the share of Americans who support the death penalty for people convicted of murder is now at its lowest point in more than four decades.” Among age groups, 18-to-29-year-olds are the cohort most opposed to the death penalty for murder, with 42 percent in favor to 51 percent opposed. Maybe Tim Kaine’s principled record of opposition to the death penalty will help with young voters who have been sluggish to support the Clinton-Kaine ticket. Or not. But it’s not a bad thing to point out ahead of Tuesday’s debate.
So … what was the point of this again?