Skip to main content
Feeling the Atwater-Horton effect; suffering primary election day blues
Email share
The last lingering decision for this registered Republican ...

Here it is the morning of the primary election and I still haven’t decided, on Noem and Jackley.

Call it the Willie Horton effect. It’s likely to be the deciding factor sometime today when I stroll down to my polling place and mark my ballot. I’m old fashioned that way. No early voting. I often don’t decide on key issues until the very end of a campaign.

I’ve decided this spring on every candidate and issue but the GOP gubernatorial primary.

I’ll admit, I’ve been leaning toward Noem throughout the campaign. I get along well with Jackley, and consider him to a worthy GOP candidate who has run an exceptionally effective campaign. But I like the idea of a woman governor. I would have preferred a woman governor named Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, whose political philosophy — except for an important issue or two — was much closer to mine than is Noem’s.

I actually have a more comfortable relationship with Noem than I did with Herseth Sandlin. It's the politics that get more complicated.

Noem’s public fawning over Donald Trump troubles me, too. But Jackley has been doing plenty of Trump fawning himself. And, of course, I have to remember that my general disregard for Trump, his mean-spirited tweets and rhetoric, general denial of the facts and megalomaniacal personality  puts me in the minority of the majority party here in South Dakota.

We love the guy. And by “we” I mean we Republicans, since I am for the time being a registered member of the party of Lincoln — among whom, in South Dakota at least, the current president’s approval rating, according to the recent Keloland News-Argus Leader poll, sat at 72 percent.

I’ve heard of internal polling in some of the Republican races that registered Trump approval percentages even higher than 72 percent — which, to me, is depressing enough.

And if I might digress from Noem-Jackley for a moment, here’s something even more depressing than Trump at 72 percent among South Dakota Republicans:  Gov. Dennis Daugaard at 58 percent.

Seriously? No, really. Seriously? My fellow Republicans, how can you, er, I mean, we, rank a man like Donald Trump higher than you, er, we rank a man like Dennis Daugaard?

Stop it. Just stop it.

Just on manners alone, Daugaard should get  25 bonus points and Trump at least 25 negative points. I know, I know, I’m sure many of my GOP brothers and sisters will say manners don’t matter as much as policy and the law, and the  federal bench and the tax cuts and the, well, you know the list.

Some of you, I understand, made a Faustian bargain in voting for Trump, tolerating all that is odious about him and his style and his rhetoric for the priorities you believed he would pursue.  But I also think some of you, perhaps a fair share, like the priorities and the style and rhetoric, too.

Which is, at best, depressing.

Call me a RINO if you like, and I might like it, too, but since when did bad manners, rude comments and despicable behavior become something in which a party would take pride? What happened to placing value on good manners, which I think might matter as much as anything in our society, particularly in the White House. Good manners there at least give us a good example of rhetoric and human interaction as a nation.

They set a tone that matters, nationwide. Worldwide, perhaps.

The other night on PBS, Judy Woodruff was talking with Mark Shields and David Brooks about this issue, specifically the despicable, not-quite comparable comments by Roseanne Barr and Samantha Bee, and what they said about public discourse in general.

“But are we in some kind of muck and mud in this country now in terms of our language...?” Woodruff asked.

Brooks said he hopes the fallout on Barr and Bee is a sign that we’re “trying to drag ourselves out of the muck.

“We have been in the muck for a little while,” he said. “And it’s caused by social media. It’s caused by different standards on TV than used to exist. It’s caused in part by Donald Trump setting new norms about what can be said, and then Trump’s critics matching them.”

Yes, it isn’t just what Trump says and the way he says it. Or how his fans say it. It’s how we respond. So, love him or hate him, don’t follow Trump and his standards. Don’t follow some of fans, or some of his critics, and their standards of rhetoric. Follow something better.

Daugaard’s standards of manners and behavior would be a good place to start. Fifty eight percent? Among Republicans? Come on.

Used to be, South Dakotans overall gave him an approval rating similar to that, or higher in polls across the nation of governors and their popularity. They still might.

This 58 percent is still pretty good among politicians nationally. But among South Dakota Republicans, considering that Daugaaard is the guy who finally eliminated that seemingly untouchable $127 million budget deficit?

I suppose it’s about the sales tax hike for education, and maybe about his veto of that bathroom bill. Although people find reasons to dislike government officials that I would never think of, so there’s that, too.

And, of course, it could be the fact that after old video of Trump joking about molesting women surfaced in early October, 2016, Daugaard tweeted that Trump should step away from the race in favor of Mike Pence. But John Thune Tweeted the same thing. And despite a flood of angry phone calls to his offices at the time, Thune registered a 73-percent favorability in that KELO-Argus survey.

Beyond the depressing Trump-Daugaard favorables, there was something in that survey that I found stunning: 7 percent of the Republicans surveyed didn’t know who Dennis Daugaard was.

All right, that tears it. If you’re a Republican in a Republican state and you don’t know who the Republican governor is, there has to be some consequences. So turn in your plastic-elephant back scratcher and your Ronald Reagan autographed baseball. (But turn the baseball in to me, please, because it’s worth about $20,000).

I was encouraged that at least Thune ranked higher than Donald Trump, but just by a smidgen. Mike Rounds, who issued a public statement condemning the "just grab 'em" comments by Trump in 2016 but not calling for him to step aside, came in with 60 percent in that Keloland-Argus survey.

No word on whether the 7 percent who didn’t know Daugaard did better with Thune and Rounds.

But back to Brooks and manners. On that, he paraphrased the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke.

“He said manners are more important than laws, because manners touch us every day,” Brooks said. “It’s manners that either degrade us or uplift us.”

I like the paraphrase. I think I like the actual quote from Burke even better:

“Manners are of more importance than laws,” Burke wrote. “Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe.”

The manners that define our public discourse these days, which are now being emphasized by our president, do more to corrupt and debase, certainly, than to purify or exalt. So, too, do some of the campaign advertisements of late in the Republican gubernatorial primary.

Which brings us back to my coming vote and the Willie Horton effect. If you were around and paid attention to the 1988 presidential campaign, you probably remember the ads about William Horton — a black man who said he never went by Willie, even though that’s what he was called in ads attacking Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis.

William Horton was a convicted murderer serving a life sentence in Massachusetts in June of 1986 when he was allowed to go on a weekend furlough, a program that Massachusetts and many other states and the federal prison system had at the time. Even in California during Ronald Reagan's time as governor, the furlough program was used. And two furloughed inmates there committed murders while on furloough.

Dukakis didn’t start the program in Massachusetts, but he was governor when Horton went on furlough and took off. That's all that mattered to the campaign team for George H.W. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee.

Horton had been on the run for almost a year when he was captured and charged with a different violent crime — assault, armed robbery and rape. His case would lead to the exclusion of first-degree murder inmates in furlough programs in Massachusetts. But the Willie Horton story, and a scary looking mug of Horton, would become a deadly campaign weapon for Bush, under the guidance of creatively ruthless campaign strategist Lee Atwater.

Some called the use of the Horton incident — the way it was used, at least — racist, a charge George H.W. Bush denied, and one I bought into.

As he was dying of cancer a few years later, Atwater sent an apology to Dukakis. Atwater also told Life magazine: "In 1988, fighting Dukakis, I said that I 'would strip the bark off the little bastard' and 'make Willie Horton his running mate. I am sorry for both statements: the first for its naked cruelty, the second because it makes me sound racist, which I am not."

I was no fan of the Atwater style. But I was saddened by his death and suffering leading up to it. And I was heartened by his apologies and self-reflection. It's even better when we reflect on our behavior, and change it when warranted, long before those dying decrees.

Back in 1988, I was a big H.W. fan, and planned to vote for him. I didn't need or want the Horton ploy. And as Horton was used time and again by Bush in comments and by his campaign, and especially by a third-party advertising, I was eventually so sickened by the negative tone and nature of the advertisements -- and what I considered to be the manipulative undertones of racism -- that I voted for Dukakis, even though I thought Bush was a better candidate.

So, what lingers with me from that race is the Willie Horton effect, which could also be called the Lee Atwater effect. Atwater was a pioneer in the kind ominous fact distortion and reality abuse that has become so common in today’s politics. It's mean. To go back to Edmund Burke, it barbarizes and corrupts.

There has been a hint of the barbaric and the corrupt in the last two or three weeks in the gubernatorial primary race. It began with Noem, who saved the worse for last --  presumably using it because the race has tightened. And Jackley finally went negative with his own distorted response, which was doubly depressing.

All of which leaves me unsettled as I struggle to answer the last undecided question on this primary election day: Noem or Jackley?

For me, it could be a late vote.