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The GOP’s chief strategist pitches the party’s new ‘Willie Horton-style’ ad

Maybe Sean Spicer, the Republican National Committee's chief strategist and communications director, doesn't fully understand the connotations of calling something a "Willie Horton-style" ad.

Spicer tweeted a link to a Roll Call article reporting on a new web ad from the party. The ad, titled "America Deserves Better," walks through Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine's record as a defense lawyer and as governor of Virginia. In the ad, a number of criminals are named and shown in black-and-white photos, with an ominous voice describing their crimes.

A video from the Republican National Committee attacks vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine (D) for clients he defended before taking office. (Video: The Republican National Committee)

The Horton analogy drawn in the Roll Call headline -- the source of Spicer's tweet --  refers to an ad that ran in the 1988 presidential campaign. That ad told the story of how the Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, had allowed convicted murderer William Horton to have a weekend pass from prison. (The passes were part of an effort to rehabilitate criminals.) Horton didn't return from his furlough, and raped a woman in Maryland and assaulted her fiancé.

The ad was the brainchild of Republican strategist Lee Atwater, who became famous for his use of race as a political tactic. In 1981, Atwater gave an interview in which he explained that it was no longer possible to be openly racist in political campaigning. So instead of using the n-word, he said, "you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff." The ad itself explicitly played on racial fears and the spiking crime rate in the country, as Dukakis and his allies quickly pointed out. It's probably overhyped as a game-changer in the 1988 race, but its reputation as an ugly chapter in the nation's racial history is well deserved.

For that reason alone, saying that any ad is "Willie Horton-style" is questionable -- particularly for a party that's ostensibly reaching out to black voters on behalf of a candidate who has been criticized for the racial undertones of his own candidacy.

But it's also worth pointing out that the ad is similar to the Willie Horton ad only in style, not substance. Calling it "Willie Horton-style" implies that it leverages a similar racial subtext to make a similar point. This ad does not do that.

First and foremost, the criminals in the GOP ad are not all black.

Also, the argument isn't the same. The new ad excoriates Kaine for having defended suspected criminals as a lawyer -- which, as a defense attorney, was his job. "Tim Kaine. He has a passion for defending the wrong people," the ad says at its conclusion, implying that only the "right" people deserve a fair trial in front of an impartial jury. There has been a recent trend toward holding defense lawyers accountable for the actions of their clients, including Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton herself. The simplest rebuttal to this line of argument is that the British soldiers who shot and killed civilians during the Boston Massacre in 1770 were defended -- successfully -- by founding father John Adams.

The ad itself makes clear that Kaine's defense of one of his clients was unsuccessful and that his client was given the death penalty. The other client mentioned, convicted murderer Lem Tuggle, received the same sentence. In August, the Daily Beast explored how Kaine's work as a lawyer -- and opposition to the death penalty -- was driven by his faith. (On a semi-related note: Support for the death penalty in the United States is near a 50-year low.)

When the ad mentions Kaine's term as governor, it's also not analogous to the Dukakis situation. Kaine commuted the sentence of convicted murderer Percy Walton from death to life without parole and advocated for the extradition to Germany of another convicted murderer. Neither of the two men mentioned in the ad committed any other crime; in fact, both are still incarcerated. In other words: All four men in the ad were fairly tried and convicted of crimes, as the process is supposed to work.

What the ad does do is try to leverage the same sort of fears of rising crime that Donald Trump has tried to exploit. Just as Trump tries to cobble together disparate bits of information to paint a picture of a nation out of control, the ad tries to use these examples as a way to suggest that Kaine will allow criminals to go free. None of the four men mentioned did.

All of that aside, it's remarkably tone deaf for the chief strategist of the Republican Party to use the descriptor "Willie Horton-style" approvingly. Other conservatives quickly recognized the trickiness of the issue.

Spicer -- and the party, which subsequently tweeted the same thing -- could just as easily have kicked up a fuss by pointing out how the ad wasn't like that famous ad, and how the use of that headline was unfair to its contents.

For whatever reason, that's not the path that was chosen.

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