Bush emits the soft echoes of Willie Hortonism On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

August 16, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Washington -- BASKING IN the glow of the Persian Gulf war success and his own high ratings in the polls, President Bush might be expected in his anticipated reelection bid next year to emulate his old boss, former President Ronald Reagan, by taking the high road th, which stirred memories of Willie Horton without mentioning the star of Bush's 1988 attacks on Democrat Michael Dukakis.

Like Bush today, Reagan headed for his reelection coasting on a wave of high public approval, and the result was the feel-good campaign of 1984 and those memorable "It's Morning in America" television ads. With only a few minor swipes at Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale and his frank call for new taxes, the Reagan campaign wore a smiling happy face en route to reelection.

It's notable that many of the same individuals who orchestrated that 1984 feel-good campaign, including media expert Roger Ailes, the Darth Vader of American politics to the Democrats, were importantly involved in Bush's winning campaign of 1988 over Dukakis.

That campaign, however, turned out to be one of the most negative in years, with Bush directly or by implication raising questions about Dukakis' patriotism and commitment to combat crime. His attacks on Dukakis for not moving swiftly to change the Massachusetts prison-furlough progam that enabled convicted murderer Horton to commit rape on a weekend furlough became a centerpiece of the Bush campaign.

So it's clear that the Bush campaign managers, like the geography teacher desperate for a job who told the school board he could teach that the world was round or flat, can take the high road or the low, whichever is required. On the basis of Bush's Pittsburgh speech, if left to his own devices he is likely to take the low once again next year.

Without mentioning Dukakis, Bush played off the success of the Willie Horton tactic again by proclaiming that "we've acted to curb potential furlough abuse" and trotting out statistics of a very minor federal prison-furlough program, noting that a rate of only 1.2 furloughs per 100 inmates was being cut by more than half. "Of course," Bush added, "no furloughs are granted for anyone serving a sentence of life without parole."

Bush also trumpeted his support of the death penalty for cop-killers and announced that "our entire administration opposes chaos and lawlessness and stands shoulder to shoulder with those who strive for law and order." That line was reminiscent of Richard Nixon in the late 1960s aligning himself with "the peace forces against the criminal forces," as if others, like his Democratic foes, were supporting "the criminal forces."

Unmentioned in Bush's anti-crime pitch was his threatened veto of gun-control legislation, an anti-crime measure widely supported by the public and by police organizations, unless it is part of an anti-crime package.

It is not surprising that Bush would address crime in a speech to this sort of group, but at a time he is being severely criticized for lacking a domestic agenda, it is politically telling that in his one scheduled break from his long Kennebunkport vacation, he elected to address a police group about crime.

The president may yet decide that he doesn't need to hammer at the law-and-order theme to be reelected, and to paint the Democrats as soft on crime in the process. But it has been a staple in the Republican campaign arsenal for three decades, going back to the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964, and it usually plays well with conservatives and blue-collar Democrats.

The discovery in the 1988 campaign of the case of Willie Horton, who is black, enabled Bush to capitalize on racial fears among whites, but even without this sort of explicit example, law-and-order has come to be a code word for racial fears. Bush won't be running next year against Dukakis, who made a easy target by dragging his heels on reforming the Massachusetts prison-furlough program, but those fears remain and can be stirred up in other ways by a candidate determined to do so.

The question is, though, why George Bush needs to, riding high as he is against a confused Democratic Party, when he could well afford to take the feel-good route of Reagan's reelection waltz of 1984.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.