Willie Horton in 2016? It could happen again to the Democrats after Köln attacks

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By Library of Congress – Edited version

Democrats have taken a noble and laudable stand on the acceptance of immigrant refugees from Syria and Iraq. It is from a humanitarian standpoint the absolute right thing to do.  But from a political standpoint the danger in this position could be easily exploited if we have a single incident of domestic terrorism caused by any immigrant group expect the GOP to exploit it like the Willie Horton matter in 1988. Or what’s worse, a poorly organized effort in Germany that has already taken place could be the fodder for campaign ads by the GOP nominee and associated outside groups.  The New Year’s Eve attacks in Köln reminded us that some of those admitted to Germany were either linked to terrorist groups or maybe just simply hooligans looking to stir up trouble. It also reminded us about the misogyny and sexism associated with the more radicalized forms of Islam (and even some softer forms quite frankly as I have found in my travels).

Those of us who study these things carefully realize the vetting process to admit refugees has a higher threshold than in any Western European country. But what has happened in Western Europe could easily be exploited here if the GOP is as desperate to play any card needed to win as they were in 1988 but not in 2008 when John McCain rejected calls to race-bait and to use Rev. Jeremiah Wright as a major campaign issue (though that moral standard it can be argued was violated by the Clinton Campaign in the primary earlier in the year).

German Chancellor Angela Merkel did not anticipate the backlash following the Köln attacks, but even as a politician of the centre-right she was forced on the defensive. Given the Democrats strong stand on this issue, a fair moral stand but one with extreme political risk. For those not familiar with the Horton matter, here is a refresher course from Wikipedia (Which strangely doesn’t mention Lee Atwater but he was the chief culprit as I recall correctly).

A key passage below:

On October 5, 1988, a day after the “Weekend Passes” ad was taken off the airwaves, was the date of the BentsenQuayle debate, the Bush campaign ran its own ad, “Revolving Door“, which also attacked Dukakis over the weekend furlough program. While the advertisement did not mention Horton or feature his photograph, it depicted a variety of intimidating-looking men walking in and out of prison through a revolving door.[17]

Attempting to counter-attack, Dukakis’ campaign ran an ad about a convicted heroin dealer named Angel Medrano who raped and killed a pregnant mother of two after escaping from a federal correctional halfway house.[18] The controversy escalated when Vice Presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen and former Democratic presidential candidate and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson called the “Revolving Door” ad racist[19] – a charge which was denied by Bush.[18]

In 1990, the Ohio Democratic Party and a group called “Black Elected Democrats of Ohio” filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that NSPAC had coordinated or cooperated with the Bush campaign in airing the ad, which would make it an illegal in-kind campaign contribution.[15] Investigation by the FEC, including deposition of officials from both organizations, revealed indirect connections between McCarthy and the Bush campaign (such as his having previously worked for Ailes), but found no direct evidence of wrongdoing, and the investigation reached an impasse and was eventually closed with no finding of any violation of campaign finance laws.[15]

It has been suggested that the Willie Horton ad cost Michael Dukakis the election.

Democrats need to be weary of this from a political standpoint. Donald Trump has already proven he can race bait with the best of them. Immigrant-baiting is nothing new to American politics, going back to the Know-Nothings of the 1850’s and even before that with the Alien and Sedition acts. The Democrats have taken a rare moral stand, but since so often the party wilts on morality and puts campaign finance or political considerations first, don’t be surprised if the same thing happens here.

This is after all a party that punted on immigration reform two years ago in order to protect four incumbent Senators, all of whom ended up losing anyway. In this case, perhaps some Democrats can be excused if they back off the hardened position they have taken, because in time it might look like one awfully dangerous place to be politically. That is of course unless you are like Reps. Gwen Graham and Patrick Murphy who voted cautiously on the refugee program when the GOP leadership brought the issue to the floor in November.

That vote took place before the attacks in Köln and prior to the clear indicator that Donald Trump’s race-baiting on the issue was a political winner. It is possible that while the Democrats did the right thing, the GOP especially if Trump is nominated could exploit that issue, fueling racial passions and reminding us of Lee Atwater and Willie Horton. Don’t put anything past the Trump machine at this point in time.


  1. It is wrong to conflate Bush’s campaign and the Taharrush gamea that took place in Germany. The former was a campaign tactic vilifying one man and the wrong perception this was a possible threat, the latter was engaged in by over numerous men,that violated over 1000 women. Germany will now have programs about cultural understanding. The immediate jump to equate these two events by the political class undercuts the terror and emotional pain of the women in Germany. Both sides now using for political gain and no one remembers the women. You need to tell the numbers. say the names. Women’s lives and safety matter, too.Please read more about Taharrush gamea. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taharrush_gamea
    This need not be a campaign issue on either side. But to play the Willie Horton card seems to diminish what happened to so many women.


    1. I don’t disagree. Good points that we need focus on what happened to the women. I wish some on the left who make excuses for the behavior of some Muslims realize misogyny is a key component of that religion in some ways it is put into practice. Same for Hinduism and all the violence against women in India. Indians hide behind electing a female Prime Minister three times every time this issue comes up. It’s sickening.


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