The scandal that torpedoed Gary Hart profoundly changed the history of America.
That's the thesis of Matt Bai's recent retelling of the 1987 sex scandal that sunk Hart, paving the way for Michael Dukakis to win the nomination and get shellacked by Vice President George Bush in the general election. If Hart had won the nomination, Bai argues, he would have beaten Bush—which would’ve meant, among other things, no George W. Bush win in 2000, and no incredibly stupid and bloody war in Iraq. More, Bai says, the scandal inaugurated an era where candidates’ personal lives were fair game for the press, which damaged the quality of people seeking the presidency. The Hart scandal and its aftermath, Bait says, "drove a lot of potential candidates with complex ideas away from the process, and it made it easier for a lot of candidates who knew nothing about policy to breeze into national office."
So those are two major ways in which Hart's flirtation with Donna Rice damaged us all. Supposedly. In fact, both of Bai's claims for relevance have been quickly and thoroughly debunked by the blogosphere. Political scientists like Andrew Gelman and Jonathan Bernstein explain that Hart had no real chance of winning the presidency. Contrary to popular wisdom, Dukakis did about as well as you'd expect an out-party candidate to do given fundamentals like the economy and Presidential approval rating. "Doing as well as you'd expect" in this case meant losing by a whopping eight points. It's very unlikely Hart would have been able to overcome that kind of gap, especially considering the bumbling way he handled the scandal. After all, actual presidential winners like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama figured out ways to overcome bimbo eruptions and Jeremiah Wright, respectively. As for the press' post-Hart scandal-mongering forcing out substantive candidates… as Ramesh Ponnuru convincingly argues, that's complete bunk.
So Hart wasn't going to win the presidency; his candidacy changed nothing in particular about campaigning. The Donna Rice scandal is a good story, but as far as actual historical import goes, it's completely irrelevant. Right?
Perhaps not. If Hart had won the nomination, he still wouldn't have become president. But there would’ve been one important difference in the campaign. Bush would’ve unscrupulously run vicious ads about Hart's infidelities, rather than unscrupulously running race-baiting ads about Willie Horton.
Horton, as anyone around in 1988 remembers, was an imprisoned murderer who took part in Massachusetts' weekend furlough program, designed to help rehabilitate offenders. Horton disappeared while on furlough. He raped a woman and beat her fiancé. Dukakis was the governor when Horton escaped, and had supported the furlough program (though he finally abolished it before the 1988 campaign.) Bush determined to tie him to Horton, and released a brutal and infamous ad doing just that. The ad contrasted Bush's support of the death penalty with Dukakis' weekend pass program. It was widely seen as contributing to Bush's commanding victory.
Again, the available political science research suggests that the ad did not have much of an effect on the outcome of the election. But it did have an effect on other politicians. Mark Dlugash at the Kennedy School Review, for example, points to the Horton ad as one iconic moment which showed politicians that they should always be tough on crime, if they didn't want to face a public relations disaster. Researchers have even found that the Willie Horton ad had a substantive effect on crime policies and rhetoric in Britain.
The Horton ad can't be blamed for the U.S. prison boom; that started well before 1988, and continued on a steady upward curve to the present (where it's finally leveled out slightly, though not enough.) Still, the reluctance to revisit prison policies even as crime rates declined for 20 years is linked to political fears of looking weak on crime. And one of the most iconic lessons about being weak on crime was the Horton ad.
Presidential campaigns in most cases have little substantive effect on election results. In 2012, Mitt Romney insulted half the electorate, was widely seen as a second-best option by most in his own party, and yet managed to do just about as well as you'd expect a generic Republican candidate to do given the economy. Most supposedly game-changing campaign choices—scandals, debate performances, ads, and so on—don't affect voting decisions in any meaningful way.
But campaigns can have real effects when people think they are important. The scattered Tea Party primary victories have convinced large numbers of Republican candidates that they need to be more afraid of primaries from the right than of general election challenges, even though that's probably not the case for the vast majority of them—and that's had significant effects on Republican policy. Along the same lines, the Horton ads narrowed the space for dissenting from a policy of all-incarceration-all-the-time policy, even if the ad didn't really have much to do with Dukakis' defeat.
How much the Horton ad narrowed that space is hard to tell. Maybe incarceration policy was already set; maybe we'd have had to wait another 20 years anyway for anyone to even begin reassessing it. But if Hart's scandal mattered at all, it mattered not because he would’ve won, but because, in defeat, he would’ve given our political system less reason than Dukakis did to throw people in jail.
—Follow Noah Berlatsky on Twitter: @hoodedu