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Willie Horton Redux

An attack ad targeting Barack Obama raises a question: Can anyone with doubts about capital punishment, especially a black guy, become president?

| Thu May 1, 2008 3:00 AM EDT

There are plenty of pundits and pollsters who say that Dukakis lost the election on the issue of the death penalty—due in part to the Willie Horton ads, and in part to his answer to a debate question asked by CNN's Bernard Shaw: "Governor, if [your wife] Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?" Dukakis's reply—calmly citing facts and figures to support his opposition to capital punishment—was deemed unworthy of any red-blooded American man. Moreover, a nation that had used the threat of death to keep blacks in line—whether by lynching, police shootings, or state-sanctioned execution—appeared unwilling to give up that prerogative.

Four years later, Bill Clinton wouldn't make the same "mistake." The new Democratic Leadership Council had already identified opposition to the death penalty as one of the excessively liberal positions that had to go if the Democrats were ever to retake the White House. In order to win back white, working-class "Reagan Democrats" who had fled to the GOP in the 1980s, they had to overcome the perception that the party was "soft on crime." Despite the fact that it had never been shown to be an effective deterrent, support for the death penalty offered a fast track to the "tough on crime" image the DLC desired. Clinton, a supporter of capital punishment, made a point of declaring early in his campaign that Democrats "should no longer feel guilty about protecting the innocent." Driving the point home, he flew back to Arkansas from the campaign trail to sign the death warrant of Ricky Ray Rector, who had shot himself in the head after killing a police officer. Clinton had repelled pleas to commute the sentence based on evidence that Rector was effectively lobotomized and functionally retarded. (At his last meal, Rector chose not to eat his pecan pie before being taken to the death chamber, saying he wanted to save it "for later.") Rector, like Willie Horton, was a large, bearded black man.

The execution by lethal injection of Rector—who, like some more recent victims of this method of killing, had a long and painful death—took place shortly before the all-important New Hampshire primary. A few weeks earlier, Clinton's bid for the presidency had seemed dead in the water after the eruption of the Gennifer Flowers scandal; instead, he took second place in New Hampshire and declared himself the "Comeback Kid" (despite efforts by the ubiquitous Floyd Brown, who created a 900 number where callers could hear excerpts of conversations between Clinton and Flowers). The Rector execution may have helped save the Clinton campaign by detracting attention from the scandal and transforming the candidate's image. Put in the most cynical terms, Bill Clinton may have gotten away with screwing a white woman by killing a black man.

This might have been the year when vigorous support for the death penalty ceased to be a prerequisite for the US presidency. Statistics show that Americans' taste for capital punishment has actually begun to diminish, due in part to the efforts of the Innocence Project and other advocates who have used DNA and other evidence to exonerate more and more death row inmates. Such exonerations also make it harder than ever to ignore the fact that who gets executed in country has more to do with being black and/or poor than it does with being guilty of a particularly heinous crime—or for that matter, being guilty at all. Four years ago, no one took much notice when John Kerry, without coming out against the death penalty, nonetheless asked that an explicitly pro-capital punishment plank be dropped from the Democrats' presidential platform. In order to make the death penalty function in this election as it has in the past—as the issue that captures and focuses white fear—strategists need to make a concerted effort to push all the buttons of their target voters.

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