On June 9, 1988, George H. W. Bush told his home crowd in Texas about an imprisoned convict named Willie Horton who left jail on a weekend pass and turned up years later having raped a woman after brutally assaulting her fiance. Bush Sr., running for president at the time, blamed his opponent Democrat Michael Dukakis who was governor of Massachusetts, the state where Horton was imprisoned for murder when he escaped. Bush seized on the Horton narrative throughout his campaign while his buddy Lee Atwater pledged to make Horton a “household name” by the end of the election. In the Fall of 1998, a Bush-supporting PAC picked up on the Horton meme and ran this ad:
The ad, and the Bush-Atwater practice of constant Horton invocation, has been deemed by scholars as a Republican strategy to prey on the worst racial fears of white voters by leading them to believe that under the Democrat Dukakis, African-American convicts would be given free reign to terrorize neighborhoods.
Jump twenty-four years later today, and we’re back in Texas under another presidential campaign where our sitting Democrat president shares the same race as Horton, and a Massachusetts governor is again running for president, this time a Republican named Mitt Romney. The current campaign also involved a politician from Texas, this one named Rick Perry, the state’s governor, who fizzled out after a series of embarrassments including the revelation of his family’s association with a hunting camp called “Niggerhead.” Finally, that terrible Willie Horton ad run above? It was produced back then by a PAC run by a man named Larry McCarthy. Today, McCarthy is in charge of a Super PAC called Restore Our Future, which is backing Romney to the tune of $17 million raised as of February, $15 million of which has been spent on ads produced by McCarthy’s media firm, as reported by Jane Mayer in The New Yorker.
Some of the names and faces have been shuffled around between the 1988 and 2012 elections, but certain things remain the same. I shudder to think what McCarthy will pull off against Obama, given what he did against Dukakis, but there’s something about having a black president that (hopefully) blunts the worst of racist campaign intentions, like the one seen in the Willie Horton ads. Paul Begala said in Newsweek “in the age of the Internet and instant outrage,” a Horton-esque ad “would explode in the candidate’s face.” I suspect now, though, that it will be Latino Americans who will be Horton-ized in this campaign, if they haven’t been already.
What we can see so far is that Republicans are ramming photo voter ID laws down states’ throats by drumming up fake scares about “voter fraud” caused by “illegal aliens” who are terrorizing the polls by voting and cancelling out the votes of legitimate voters. It’s all bunkum, but plenty of campign mileage miles are racking up off this racket by Republicans — sorry, I wish I could say politicians in general, but it’s a noted fact that the overwhelming majority of Democrats are not playing along with the “voter fraud” tricks.
Take this recent op-ed written by Texas Rep. Charles Perry, a co-author of the state’s photo voter ID law that was blocked by the Department of Justice for discriminatory effects on Latino voters:
Currently, you don’t have to show an ID to vote. This means our elections are not secure and are left open to fraud. It also means illegal immigrants and non-citizens can vote, and there are even incidences of legal citizens voting multiple times. … Those looking to vote illegally take advantage of our current laws by telling the election worker a name and showing a non-photo ID and then proceeding to vote in place of that person.
Or this recent blog from John Watson at the conservative American Thinker, who after claiming that there are 19 million “illegal immigrants” and another 12 million “green card holders” in the country to worry about says:
There have also been instances of non-citizens intentionally voting illegally. Without a photo ID requirement, these non-citizen registrants’ names can easily be illegally used by others to vote. … Some of the 9/11 hijackers had American driver’s licenses. Should they have been allowed to vote? While many or most states now restrict driver’s licenses to citizens or those who can prove they are here legally, even though they are not citizens, this still leaves open a huge potential for voter fraud.
Remember that Kansas’ Kris Kobach has been hobnobbing with a group called the Coalition for a Secure Driver’s License, who believe 9/11 was caused by terrorists who were too easily able to get driver’s ID in the U.S.
While voter fraud is a constant refrain for Republicans trying to rationalize photo ID laws, you would be hard-pressed to find them ever cite a single incident of this fraud, not from Latinos they suspect aren’t citizens, nor anyone else for that matter. In Texas, the Attorney General’s office looked into voter impersonation cases between 2008 and 2010 and could find not one out of 13 million voters who cast ballots during that time period, as reported by the Houston Chronicle.
State Rep. Rafael Anchia, who represents Dallas, said in the Chronicle that voter ID proponents ivoked images of “busloads of illegal immigrants being transported up from Mexico to vote straight-ticket Democratic in an election near you … That was the fantasy, the scary narrative.”
Begala reminds us of 1994, when Republicans Willie Horton-ed Latinos in California during Pete Wilson’s run for governor with an ad showing assumed undocumented Latinos running across the state’s border. It won Wilson the governor’s seat, but permanently lost the Latino vote for the GOP in California.
Mitt Romney has moved farther to the right than any of his Republican challengers on immigration issues as a way to show how bawse he can be for the GOP base. With Texas’s 34 electoral votes in the balance, a tight fight between the state and the federal government over the pending photo voter ID law, and the inclusion of Willie Horton-illustrator Larry McCarthy backing Romney, it’s only a matter of time before a Latino-version of Horton is plastered over TV campaign ads, to ill effect.