During the 1988 presidential election, a political action committee aligned with George H.W. Bush ran an ad blaming Democratic candidate Gov. Michael Dukakis (D-MA) for the weekend furlough of a black prisoner who later raped a white woman. It’s remembered as one of the most notorious racial attacks in the history of politics.
Instead of returning to prison when his weekend furlough was through, Willie Horton — who was convicted of murder for killing a gas station attendant in 1974 — eventually traveled to Maryland, where he raped a woman after assaulting her fiance.
“Despite a life sentence, Horton received 10 weekend passes from prison,” the ad’s narrator says, while a still image of Horton’s mugshot sits on the screen. “Weekend prison passes — Dukakis on crime.”
The ad forced Bush to fend off allegations he was running a racist campaign. It’s also widely credited for helping him overcome a significant deficit to win the election. Nonetheless, shortly before his death in 1991, Lee Atwater — who, as Bush’s campaign manager, helped develop the Horton attack — apologized to Dukakis.
“In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I ‘would strip the bark off the little bastard’ and ‘make Willie Horton his running mate,’” Atwater said, according to a New York Times report. “I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not.”
Even Republican strategist Roger Stone thought the ad was racist. Stone, who currently serves as an advisor to Donald Trump, claims that he told Atwater during the campaign, “You and George Bush will wear that to your grave.”
“It’s a racist ad. You’re already winning this issue,” Stone recalls telling Atwater. “It’s working for you. You’re stepping over a line. You’re going to regret it.’’
In 2013, Democratic strategist Jimmy Williams characterized the legacy of the Horton ad as making “white Americans — especially white southerners — raise an eyebrow and think, ‘We can’t have a man from Massachusetts releasing quote black criminals all across the country and letting them rape our white women and children.’ That was the point of that ad.”
Nearly 30 years later, the Republican National Committee has returned to the Willie Horton playbook. In a new attack ad against vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) running ahead of Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate, the RNC hits Kaine for working on behalf of capital defendants as a lawyer before he became governor.
“Long before Tim Kaine was in office, he consistently protected the worst kinds of people,” the ad’s narrator says, going on to list a number of examples of convicted murderers Kaine defended, as well as citing the single death penalty conviction he commuted as governor. “Tim Kaine — he has a passion for defending the wrong people. America deserve better.”
Left unmentioned in the ad is that all defendants — even those accused of the most heinous crimes — have a right to a lawyer.
The RNC ad clearly invokes the soft-on-crime frame the Horton ad used against Dukakis. But given the Horton ad’s legacy as a race-baiting smear, it was surprising to see RNC spokesman Sean Spicer post a tweet embracing the description of the anti-Kaine spot as a “Willie Horton-Style Attack.” (He later deleted the tweet.)
The same tweet was later posted to the GOP’s official account before also being deleted:
The GOP’s embrace of Willie Horton didn’t sit well with some Republicans, including Amanda Carpenter, the former communications director for Ted Cruz:
I'm all for running law and order ads, but to run around championing the spots as Willie Horton-esque is beyond bad.
— Amanda Carpenter (@amandacarpenter) October 3, 2016
Later, Spicer tried to distance himself from the “Willie Horton-Style” description he amplified earlier Monday:
— Sean Spicer (@seanspicer) October 3, 2016
Kaine is personally opposed to the death penalty, but as BuzzFeed details, he oversaw 11 executions during his tenure as governor. Hillary Clinton supports the death penalty, albeit with some caveats. As ThinkProgress has previously written, Clinton “usually qualifies her support, saying she believes capital punishment should be used for certain federal crimes, like terrorist attacks and mass shootings. And she says she doesn’t think states should be able to carry out capital punishment because of the arbitrary nature in which it’s applied and the possibility for human error.”
During a CNN appearance in August, Spicer argued that Donald Trump is a champion for African Americans because his Mar-a-Lago club isn’t actively racist. That appearance came while Trump was making a pitch to black voters that basically consisted of telling them their lives are terrible, so they might as well vote for a Republican for a change.