Vice-presidential debates do not generally rank as critical junctures of the campaign trail. But Tuesday night’s debate could be consequential—if Democratic vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine decides to rip into the Republican party for continuing to practice the sort of “Willie Horton-style” politics that for decades has been recognized as racist.
Republican National Committee communications director Sean Spicer set Kaine up to do just that with one of the most bizarre moves of this most bizarre campaign.
Spicer was so excited about a video produced by Republicans to attack Kaine that the GOP strategist gleefully tweeted out a link to an article headlined: “Exclusive: Republicans Launch Willie Horton-style Attack.”
That headline provided a fair description of the video, which savages Kaine for his work as a defense lawyer, for his thoughtful expressions of concern regarding capital punishment and for deciding when he served as governor of Virginia to commute the sentence of a death-row inmate because of the inmate’s lack of mental competence.
The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call observed that the anti-Kaine video “recalls the Willie Horton attack on the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.” In that distant campaign, television ads attacking Dukakis, the well-regarded governor of Massachusetts, sought to discredit the nominee by recounting the story of how some Massachusetts prisoners who participated in a weekend furlough program had committed crimes.
The crudest of the ads, produced by a supposedly independent group, was called “Weekend Passes.” It featured what was referred to as a “menacing” image of Horton, an African-American prisoner from Massachusetts who did not return from a weekend furlough and eventually was charged with committing assault, armed robbery, and rape.
A parallel ad, produced by the campaign of Republican presidential nominee George H. W. Bush and called “Revolving Door,” featured images of convicts (actually actors) casually passing in and out of prison. The ad did not feature an image of Horton, but it reinforced the message of the previous ad with a script that announced: “As Governor Michael Dukakis vetoed mandatory sentences for drug dealers he vetoed the death penalty. His revolving door prison policy gave weekend furloughs to first degree murderers not eligible for parole. While out, many committed other crimes like kidnapping and rape…”