As the campaign draws to a close, liberals in the media continue to decry “negative advertising.” Some, like Alan Colmes, are even invoking the spectre of the Willie Horton ad from the 1988 presidential campaign. Attacks against that ad had the Republicans on the defensive for a decade, but in fact the Horton ad was entirely legitimate and illustrates the point I made last night — that negative ads often provide accurate and relevant information to voters.
For those who never saw, or don’t remember, the Horton ad, here are the relevant facts. Horton was a convicted murderer serving a life sentence in Massachusetts. Michael Dukakis was the governor of Massachusetts and the Democratic candidate for president in 1988. His state had a program under which convicts could be released for weekends. Dukakis had inherited the program from his predecessor, but he ardently supported it and even vetoed a bill under which first degree murderers such as Horton would have been barred from obtaining furloughs. As a result, Horton was able to get a weekend pass. During one of his weekends of freedom, he kidnaapped a young couple, stabbed the man, and repeatedly raped the woman. Dukakis nonetheless continued the weekend pass program for more than a year and publicly defended it by claiming that Horton’s crime spree was an exception.
Al Gore had raised this issue during his primary campaign against Dukakis. A political action committee supporting George Bush revived the issue. Its ad began by noting that Bush supports the death penalty, while Dukakis not only opposes it but also grants weekend passes to first degree murderers. The ad then shifted to a picture of Willie Horton, a black man looking menacing and unsavory, as is the tendency among murderers and rapists of all races. The narrator related the Horton affair as stated above and concluded by saying, “Weekend passes, Dukakis on crime.”
The Horton ad was accurate in every respect and provided voters with pertinent information. It dealt with a fundamental issue of public policy — the punishment of violent criminals. It also demonstrated a disturbing tendency by Dukakis not to let common sense interfere with liberal social experimentation. Dukakis had declared that the election was about competence, not ideology. The Willie Horton affair undercut Dukakis’ attempt to stipulate ideology out of the campaign even as it raised questions about his competence. Nor was there anything racist about using Horton’s picture. Print news stories about the affair that appeared long before the Republicans raised the issue had included the same picture.
The real problem with the Horton ad was that it held a liberal accountable for the consequences of his policies. Liberals wish to be judged only by their intentions which, they assure us, are always entirely noble. Thus, because liberals intend to provide both security from terrorism and security for bureaucrats, they find it improper for Republicans to suggest that the consequence of too much job security might well be too little national security. Fortunately, to the consternation of the media, the Republicans seem finally to have gotten over the Willie Horton hangover, and are now less cowed by the self-appointed arbiters of political taste into pulling their punches. In other words, they are once again prepared to do their duty as politicians.
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