In 1988, the George H. W. Bush presidential campaign ran an ad attacking Bush's Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, for being "soft on crime." It focused on a Massachusetts case, which took place while Dukakis was governor, in which a convicted murderer, Willie Horton, was let out of prison on a weekend furlough and proceeded to rape a woman, assault her fiancé, and steal the fiancé's car. The "Willie Horton ad," as it's known, has become one of the most famous examples of racial dog-whistling in American politics, blurring the already-thin line between exploiting the public's fear of crime and exploiting white fears about African Americans.
A quarter of a century later, the politics of criminal justice are very different — Republicans and Democrats are working together in state legislatures around the country on criminal justice reform. But in Nebraska, the National Republican Campaign Committee attacking Democratic candidate Brad Ashford, who's challenging Republican congressman Lee Terry, for being soft on crime for supporting Nebraska's "good time" law — which allows prisoners to get released after serving half their sentences. And they're using a page straight out of the Willie Horton playbook to do it.
For comparison, here's the Willie Horton ad from 1988:
Republicans are attacking a law a Republican governor signed
The truly strange thing about the new NRCC ad is that the "good time" law they're attacking was a Republican law. The candidate they're attacking now, Brad Ashford, was a Republican in the state legislature when he sponsored it. And it was signed by the state's Republican governor, Dave Heineman.
Nebraska's actually had the basic version of its "good time" law on the books for decades — even when most states were increasing prison sentences. Instead of having inmates serve their entire sentences by default, and have "time off for good behavior" as the exception to the rule, the "good time" law says that inmates automatically get one day off their sentences for every day they serve — which means that the typical prisoner only serves half his sentence — unless the prisoner misbehaves and the credit gets taken away.
In recent years, Nebraska, like a lot of states, has been experimenting with criminal-justice reforms to ease the strain on state budgets and overcrowded prisons. One of those reforms, which passed in 2011, was a tweak to the good-time law — adding three more days of good time every month. And as in many other states, these reforms were pushed by Republicans, but gained bipartisan support. Ashford sponsored the bill as a Republican, but the legislature voted for it unanimously — and Republican governor Heineman signed it into law.
Nikko Jenkins, the man featured in the attack ad, served more than a decade in prison — but it was only half of the 21 years he was sentenced to by judges. Jenkins had actually committed two assaults while in prison, which accounted for part of the time that he served, but he was still eligible for most of his "good time" credit.
Within weeks of Jenkins' release last summer, he was rearrested and charged with four murders. The killing spree reignited a political debate over the good time law. Some policymakers said that Jenkins' case showed problems with the way the law was being implemented — in particular, that Nebraska's prisons weren't doing a good enough job of mental health care to be able to flag Jenkins. Other policymakers blamed the good time law itself.
Gov. Heineman was one of the people who blamed the law — flip-flopping on his earlier support. In fact, this fall, he's actually led the attacks on Brad Ashford, his former ally in getting the law passed, now that Ashford is running for Congress as a Democrat. (Observers say that the only reason Heineman's going after Ashford in particular is to help Rep. Terry win re-election.) But you wouldn't know from the ad that the bill was a Republican effort.
This Vox.com video examines whether campaign ads even work: