On the eve of tonight’s vice presidential debate, the Republican National Committee unveiled a new attack against Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Hillary Clinton’s running mate, which Roll Call described as a “Willie Horton-style attack” on the senator’s record on the death penalty.
In a new web ad that recalls the Willie Horton attack on 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, the Republican National Committee is highlighting two of Kaine’s clients when he was a defense attorney.
Richard Lee Whitley was convicted of murdering a 63-year-old neighbor in Fairfax County, while Lem Tuggle was found guilty of raping, sodomizing and murdering a 52-year old woman from Smyth County…. The RNC spot also references the commutation of the death sentence of convicted triple murderer Percy Levar Walton.
As the Roll Call report added, during Kaine’s tenure as governor, Virginia carried out numerous executions, but as a defense attorney, Kaine worked “to keep people convicted of capital offenses from facing the death penalty.”
It’s hardly a scandalous position to take: U.S. support for capital punishment has reached a four-decade low.
The RNC’s video is online here, but note that it’s nearly a minute and a half – far too long to run on television. As a practical matter, this was put together and released in the hopes of generating media chatter and directing pre-debate conversation.
And as it turns out, the video has received a fair amount of attention, though it’s probably not the kind of attention the Republican National Committee was looking for.
The characterization of the RNC’s video as a “Willie Horton-style attack” is hardly unreasonable. It’s not, however, a compliment: as The Atlantic explained yesterday, “In the language of politics, to call a strategy a ‘Willie Horton-Style Attack’ is to say that it’s race-baiting, vicious, and misleading.”
In 1991, Lee Atwater himself apologized for the “cruelty” and racism of the Horton attack.
It therefore came as something of a surprise yesterday when the RNC’s Sean Spicer published a tweet, boasting about his party launching a “Willie Horton-style” attack ad against Kaine. (Spicer later deleted the message.)
What’s more, let’s not forget that Republicans have repeatedly pushed this line of attack against Kaine throughout his lengthy career in public service. It’s never worked. In fact, in some cases, it’s backfired.
Finally, one of these days, the political mainstream will remember that lawyers should not be judged on their clients’ crimes. As we’ve discussed before, Americans have embraced this principle since before we were even our own country: in 1770, John Adams provided the defense for eight British soldiers accused of the murders in the Boston Massacre. It didn’t mean Adams was un-American. It didn’t even stop Adams from later becoming president.
More recently, John Roberts did pro-bono work as an attorney on behalf of a man executed for mass murder. It didn’t stop the Bush/Cheney administration from nominating him to serve as chief justice of the Supreme Court – just as it didn’t stop Senate Republicans from embracing him en masse.
In an interesting twist, as recently as two months ago, the RNC’s Sean Spicer defended his work on behalf of Donald Trump by saying, “There are doctors who help people who have done bad things, there are lawyers who defend bad people.”
Why is it, then, that the Republican National Committee is going after Kaine over some of his previous clients?
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Kaine faces 'Willie Horton-Style' attack from Republicans