In the Washington Post's liberal blog The Plum Line, Paul Waldman last week recycled one of the enduring lies of liberal politics: that "the Willie Horton issue," as Waldman calls it, was a successful appeal by the 1988 Bush for president campaign to American voters' racism. That's a lie and deserves to be exposed as such.
Waldman does this in a blogpost that is attempted to downplay the issue raised by the murder of Kate Steinle in San Francisco on July 1 by a five-times-deported illegal immigrant who was freed from custody, rather than turned over to federal immigration authorities as they requested, by the San Francisco sheriff under that city-county's "sanctuary city" policy.
Waldman writes that the illegal immigrant, Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, "allegedly" shot and killed Steinle; perhaps he was writing before the man told authorities that he had done exactly that. And Waldman, though he skirts around the point, is obviously trying to prevent Democrats from being attacked for the sanctuary city policies adopted by many Democratic (and, I suspect, a few Republican) municipalities. He repeats the rationale for these policies — that they enable police to get cooperation from the large number of illegals in such cities — and says that, hey, there are a lot of murders committed in the United States every day, and we shouldn't try to draw conclusions about public policy from that fact. Nothing to see here, better move on.
But he obviously fears that the story of Steinle's murder will prove politically damaging to politicians he likes. And he goes back to the 1988 campaign and what he calls the Willie Horton issue which, he writes, "was supposedly about criminal justice policies but was actually just a way for George H. W. Bush to stir up racist fears among white voters in the 1988 election."
This is dead wrong.
Willie Horton was tried in Massachusetts for the murder of a 17-year-old gas station attendant in the course of a robbery and was sentenced to life without parole. That's the most stringent sentence possible in a state that did not have a death penalty and in which Michael Dukakis, governor in 1979-82 and again 1983-90, opposed the death penalty and had the power to commute death sentences to life without parole.
Despite this, Horton was released from prison on multiple occasions under the state's policy — a criminal justice policy, Mr. Waldman — of allowing prisoners, including those sentenced to life without parole, to be furloughed over weekends. Horton failed to return from one of those furloughs and instead traveled to Maryland, where he terrorized a couple and raped the wife in Prince Georges County. He was imprisoned in in Maryland for that crime, and Maryland authorities declined to return him to Massachusetts, on the ground that he might be released on another weekend furlough.
Why did they so fear? Because over a period of 11 years, during some intense controversy, Michael Dukakis opposed repeal of the law allowing weekend furloughs for those sentenced to life without parole. It is true that the policy, as Dukakis defenders noted, was begun by Francis Sargent, a liberal Republican who served before Dukakis's first term. And it's true also that Dukakis eventually agreed, grudgingly, to repeal of the policy. But it remains a mystery to me why Dukakis, a highly intelligent man, supported such an indefensible policy over so many years. And it was an issue — a legitimate issue, I believed then and believe now, exploited by the Bush campaign.
This was not an exploitation of white racism. The Bush campaign ads on the issue explained in detail the policy Dukakis supported, the policy that enabled a prisoner sentenced to life without parole to be set free on weekends. The footage of prisoners going through a revolving door was shot in Utah, where almost no prisoners were black; Horton's photo was shown in an ad run by an independent expenditure organization. Of course it was in the interest of the Bush campaign to be specific about the Massachusetts law. An attack on Dukakis just for supporting furloughs generally would not have been very effective. Most voters understand the case for furloughing prisoners who are going to be released in time, the argument that temporary releases under supervision could help them adjust to life and behave lawfully outside prison. They may or may not agree that such furloughs are a good idea, but most don't believe that they are an outrageously wrong policy.
But furloughs for people who are never supposed to get out of prison? Dukakis was criticized by some Democrats for not defending the position he had taken amid controversy for 11 years. But what is the rational argument for furloughs for those sentenced to life without parole? Perhaps you could say prison is a nasty place and everyone should be released, at least for the weekend. That's rational, but something like 99 percent of Americans don't agree with it. I suppose prison administrators could argue that being able to promise a furlough makes prison discipline easier to enforce. An argument for furloughs generally, one that many voters might consider plausible. But not an argument for furloughs for those sentenced to life without parole.
Waldman concedes that "Bush's use of Willie Horton worked. Laden with the theme of dangerous and hyper-sexualized black men terrorizing white women while their emasculated husbands looked on helplessly [an image not seen in any Bush ad or rhetoric], it resonated with white voters and didn't produce any noticeable backlash, at least not enough to overcome the benefit Bush got from repeating the story."
The benefit Bush got came from the fact that Dukakis had backed a policy that struck the great majority of voters as ridiculous — and dangerous.
In 1988, and ever since, liberals like Waldman have argued that Americans motivated to vote for George Bush by the furlough issue were racists, who just wanted to see scary-looking black people in prison. But you don't have to be a racist to want people sentenced to life without parole to remain in prison, even over the weekend. You just have to be a person with common sense. Interestingly, Washington Post editorials during the 1988 campaign took that view. As to "the Dukakis campaign's new charge that the Bush campaign is making racist appeals," the Post wrote on October 25, "We think it's a phony."
Nevertheless liberals have used what Waldman calls the Willie Horton issue to delegitimize the first Bush presidency. They have enjoyed thinking of themselves as enlightened — and thinking of the great mass of the American people as being a howling racist mob. Now Waldman, defensively, is treating the murder of Kate Steinle the same way. If you feel that it's bad to released five-times-deported illegal immigrants from custody, then you have to be a racist. And besides, he says, Hispanic voters are going to resent any such idea — as if most American Hispanics believe that illegal immigrants scheduled to be deported for violent criminal acts should be released from custody.
I think you might have to be a racist to believe that American Hispanics believe that.