The often insightful and amusing Michael Kinsley (who like me overlapped with Mitt Romney at Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan) leads off his Bloomberg column with Barbara Bush’s comment that this year’s presidential campaign was “the worst campaign I’ve ever seen in my life.” Before making some sensible points about Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher, he pivots to criticism of her husband’s successful 1988 presidential campaign.
That year, Kinsley writes, George H. W. Bush "built a repulsive campaign against Michael Dukakis based on state prison furlough policy, obscure judicial rulings about reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and the need for laws against burning the American flag." This is the standard liberal interpretation of the 1988 campaign: Michael Dukakis was ahead by 17 points but Bush brought him down by raising trivial and unfair “wedge issues.” (A wedge issue, of course, is one on which your candidate’s position is widely unpopular.)
My particular gripe here is about the “state prison furlough policy.” Kinsley doesn’t specify what that policy was, so let me do so. Over a period of 11 years Dukakis as governor of Massachusetts supported and protected against repeal a state policy granting weekend furloughs to prisoners sentenced to life without parole. People who were supposed to remain in prison for the rest of their lives were allowed to go free on weekends.
Dukakis’s defenders have long claimed that he didn’t respond properly to this charge. But what could he say in its defense? There are no rational arguments for this policy. None. Dukakis’s adherence to it, until he grudgingly signed a repeal bill shortly before launching his presidential candidacy, showed a stubborn refusal to renounce a policy that made absolutely no sense. This was liberalism carried to a ridiculous—and dangerous—extreme.
Those decrying Bush’s use of the furlough issue often refer to it as “the Willie Horton issue.” Willie Horton was a Massachusetts inmate sentenced to life without parole for murdering a young gasoline station attendant. Granted a weekend furlough, he failed to return to prison and eventually traveled to Maryland where he terrorized a couple in a home invasion and was prosecuted and sent to prison. Naturally the Maryland authorities did not return him to Massachusetts, even though a prison official pointed out that Horton had returned to prison after earlier furloughs.
Horton, by the way, was black. His menacing face was featured in an independent expenditure ad produced by Floyd Brown. But to the best of my recollection Bush and the Bush campaign never mentioned Horton’s name and the Bush TV spot on the issue did not show Horton. Bush's prison footage was shot in Utah, and nearly all of the prisoners depicted appeared to be white.
The liberal trope has long been that American voters—at least those voting for Bush—were racist and opposed the Massachusetts furlough policy just because they liked to keep menacing black guys in jail. I think this is profoundly unfair. Voters opposed the Massachusetts furlough policy because it makes no sense to release people who under the law are never supposed to be released. That’s not racism, it’s common sense.
And it was reasonable to infer from Dukakis’s long-held stand on this issue that he was inclined to support utterly irrational policies just because conservatives opposed them. This was not a trivial issue to many voters and they had a rational basis for feeling that way.