Conservatives Shoot Down Obama Nominee with ‘Willie Horton’ Tactics

To stop the president's nominee for the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department, the right-wing borrowed from an old playbook.

As governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis presided over a prison “furlough” program that gave convicts a chance to return their communities for short periods. Like all programs, it wasn’t without its problems, but state officials considered it success: Few inmates escaped, and those who participated had a lower recidivism rate, as they were better able to reintegrate into society.

Unfortunately for Dukakis, one of the escaped prisoners was Willie Horton, a convicted murderer who never returned from furlough, and went on to assault a young couple, raping the woman and knifing her husband. And in the 1988 election, Republicans seized on this, attacking Dukakis for a “soft on crime” approach, and running ads that played on Horton’s image for great effect.

It was unfair, racially inflammatory, and brutally effective. Even if it didn’t cost him the election, “Willie Horton” destroyed Dukakis’ reputation, and lodged itself into his legacy as a politician. Moreover, it established a terrible precedent for national elections: If you’re an ambitious politician, your best bet is to avoid a lighter approach to criminal justice, even if it’s best for your state and your constituents. Then, at least, you won’t be on the hook for any failures—or in the case of Horton—the rare catastrophe.

All of this is apropos of this afternoon, when seven Senate Democrats joined with Republicans to reject Debo Adegbile, Obama’s choice to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division.

There’s no dispute over Adegbile’s qualifications. In addition to working as acting head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, he twice defended the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court. His problems have little to do with his abilities, and everything to do with the politics of his work.

In particular, Republicans were outraged by his defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the black radical who was convicted of murdering a white police officer in Philadelphia in 1982. While working with NAACP LDF, Adegbile challenged Abu-Jamal’s death penalty sentence, arguing that the jury instructions were improper and that Abu-Jamal had not received a fair trial. A federal appeals court agreed, and commuted his sentence to life in prison.

As Adam Serwer points out for MSNBC, this defense says nothing about Adegbile’s views, which fall within the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Instead, they signal his commitment to the basic American ideals of fairness and due process. The Constitution guarantees a fair trial to everyone, and the NAACP LDF was founded to protect that entitlement, especially given the deep racial inequities in our criminal justice system.

To conservatives, however, this was fodder for outrage. On right-wing blogs and media outlets, Adegbile—the son of a white mother and Nigerian father—was tarred as the ally of a “cop-killer” and condemned as a “radical ideologue” who used race “as a weapon” against whites. Here’s Fox News’ Greg Gutfield, who slams Adegbile with the subtlety of a pick-up truck:

Debo Adegbile is a volunteer supporter and defender of Mumia Abu-Jamal who murdered Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in cold blood 30 years ago. And so, you’ve got to wonder in a nation of sanctimonious attorneys, Obama picks this guy? What, none of the chaps he’s releasing from Gitmo were free, or is he saving them for cabinet posts? And yet we’re still supposed to believe that Reverend Wright’s claims were all false, so once again America is punished for being deeply racist. How is this nomination not a hate crime against our nation’s police?

As is usual, these attacks were steeped in racial resentment, with Adegbile playing the part reserved for Obama—a reverse racist who sees the federal government as a tool for reparations.

Indeed, when you consider the role of Abu-Jamal, it’s hard not to see the similarity to the Willie Horton episode. Not only was Adegbile attacked—and rejected—for doing his job as a civil rights attorney, but he was portrayed as the avowed ally of a dangerous black criminal.

After the vote, President Obama delivered a strong rebuke to the senators who voted against Adegbile, calling it a “travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant” and praising his nominee as a man with “unwavering dedication to protecting every American’s civil and Constitutional rights under the law – including voting rights – could not be more important right now.”

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He’s absolutely right, and by rejecting Adegbile, the Senate did a disservice to the country. And in the same way that Willie Horton established a precedent for ambitious politicians, this spectacle established one for talented lawyers: Don’t stand for the rights of the despised. Or at least, if you do, make sure they belong to the right class. Since, if there’s one place where unscrupulous bankers and corporate criminals have friends, it’s Washington.