A Willie Horton ad for a new generation

Author of infamous 1988 ad is back with an anti-Obama smear.

By Steve Benen

Published April 22, 2008 6:34PM (EDT)

I've seen some suggest that Hillary Clinton's attack ads against Barack Obama have been overly aggressive. The "3 a.m." ad last month, and the ad featuring bin Laden this week, are in line with the kind of negative Republican ads we can expect in the fall. Or so the argument goes.

In reality, right-wing hatchetmen are prepared to go much further. Take this new gem from Floyd Brown, author of the infamous Willie Horton ad from 1988.

Brown told Time's Michael Scherer Monday, "The campaign by Hillary Clinton has not been able to raise Obama's negatives. It is absolutely critical that Obama's negatives go up with Republicans."

Different people perceive attack ads differently, but I didn't find this one especially striking. I watched it a couple of times, but instead of thinking, "Oh no, what will Dems do about this in the fall?" I thought, "Really? This couldn't be the biggest smear they can come up with, can it?"

I'm not sure who's going to be persuaded by the spot. In fact, I'm not even sure if I understand the attack -- Obama resisted an effort to allow Illinois to execute gang members, which somehow contributed to three murders in Chicago, which somehow means he won't be aggressive toward al-Qaida.

Even for the unhinged right, this is pretty foolish.

Given Brown's role in creating the Willie Horton ad against Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis, this new spot has the feel of going to the well once too many times. Just because an attack ad worked two decades ago doesn't mean it's time to recycle it. The political landscape is entirely different -- Dukakis opposed the death penalty in all circumstances; Obama doesn't. Support for capital punishment was very high 20 years ago; today support is much weaker. It doesn't even take an especially sophisticated voter to wonder what on earth Obama's 2001 vote has to do with counterterrorism.

If Obama's the Democratic nominee, I can imagine plenty of worrisome ads that might undermine the party's efforts. This isn't one of them.

Steve Benen

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