Tag Archives: John Kennedy

QAnon and the New McCarthyism

mccarthyism (the kevin variant) n. 1. the behavior of a craven, amoral politician eager to advance his or her political career at the expense of the security and safety of the nation. 

2. The antithesis of patriotism.


“I think it would be helpful if you could hear exactly what she told all of us — denouncing Q-on, I don’t know if I say it right, I don’t even know what it is,” House Minority Leader  Kevin McCarthy (Q-Calif.) said after he defended the bigoted, conspiracy theorist freshman Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (Q-Ga.) for her heinous remarks and actions. His defense is a classic example of the new McCarthyism.

Nice try, Representative McCarthy, but pulling the old Trumpian dodge — “I know nothing about QAnon” — will not get you off the hook. Here is the problem with that formulation, Mr. Minority Leader: The rest of us know enough about QAnon and its loony conspiracies to condemn it. And, here is another problem, Mr. Craven Politician: You are on tape, on FOX News last August, condemning QAnon. “Let me be very clear: There is no place for QAnon in the Republican Party. I do not support it,” you said then. I know you do not have a reputation as the sharpest knife in the drawer, but surely, Mr. McCarthy, your memory is better than that. But, selective amnesia is a part of the new McCarthyism.

Of course, the gyrations of the Republican House leader on Greene reflect the state of today’s Republican Party. There may have been no place for QAnon in the Republican Party six months ago, but, today, McCarthy and the bulk of the Republican House caucus are more than willing to carve out a spot for her, with some members giving her a standing ovation at a contentious meeting Wednesday night. Think about that: Republicans in the House gave a standing ovation to a colleague who wants Speaker Nancy Pelosi assassinated. The reasons are simple: Greene mirrors the views of millions of voters to whom the party appeals, and she is close to former president Donald Trump. Greene may hold idiotic notions, but she is savvy enough to know when to invoke Trump’s name, which she did last weekend as the furor over her intensified. “I had a great call with my all time favorite POTUS, President Trump! I’m so grateful for his support,” the QAnon lawmaker tweeted. 

It is hard to see this McCarthyist cowardice as a winning strategy. Republican loyalty to Trump led to the party losing the White House, the House, and the Senate after controlling all three in 2017. Sure, a public vote to remove Greene from her committee assignments might result in a primary challenge against a member from someone even further out in la-la land, but what is the value in staving off a primary challenge only to lose in the general election?

Actually, many Senate Republicans understand the danger of hooking the party to QAnon. “Loony lies and conspiracy theories are cancer for the Republican Party and the country,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The second-ranking Republican in the Senate, John Thune of South Dakota, asked whether Republicans “want to be the party of limited government… or do they want to be the party of conspiracy theories and QAnon? (The Senator might want to withdraw the question as he might not want to hear the answer.) Utah Senator Mitt Romney said, “Our big tent is not large enough to both accommodate conservatives and kooks.” 

Many Senate Republicans know Greene spells disaster for the Republican Party. Already, the Democratic Party is running an advertising campaign making Greene the face of the GOP. But, Senate Republican condemnation of Greene rings hollow given the party’s past tolerance of Trump’s lies and embrace of conspiracy theories. Remember, Trump came to political prominence pushing “birtherism.” Along the way, he claimed Senator Ted Cruz’s father helped assassinate John Kennedy; Barack Obama founded the Islamic State; TV anchor Joe Scarborough, when a congressman, murdered one of his staffers, and many more “looney lies.” Trump’s penchant for conspiracy theories culminated in the big lie of a stolen election in 2020 that led to the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

The dynamic in the House is different. Republicans in the lower chamber refused to take any action against Greene, settling, instead, for a tortured McCarthyist statement from their leader in which McCarthy said Greene’s “past comments now have much greater meaning. Marjorie recognized this in our conversation. I hold her to her word, as well as her actions going forward” before pivoting to attacking the Democrats for wanting to more effectively rebuke the Georgia representative. House Republicans assume a racist, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist who has not apologized for any of her assaults on decency will behave decorously in the future. Good luck with that!

Republicans also took up the future of Representative Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the third-ranking House Republican. Cheney, a consistent conservative, ran afoul of the Trumpistas in the party for voting to impeach Trump for instigating the Capitol riot. Cheney survived by a vote of 145 to 61, but only, one suspects, because the vote was secret. On the open vote Thursday on removing Greene from House committees, only 11 Republicans voted in the affirmative. The vast majority of Republicans were unmoved by the emotional appeal of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer who displayed a picture of Greene posing with an assault rifle juxtaposed with photos of three progressive Democratic congresswomen of color above a caption, “The Squad’s Worst Nightmare.” “When you take this vote, imagine your faces on this poster,” Hoyer said to his Republican colleagues. “Imagine it’s a Democrat with an AR-15. Imagine what your response would be.”

The cowardice of the new McCarthyism is unfathomable. Just two years ago, McCarthy stripped Iowa Representative Steve King of his committee appointments because of his history of white supremacist remarks. Odious as King’s racism was, it seems tame compared to the egregious behavior of Marjorie Taylor Greene. But, according to the new McCarthyism, it is acceptable for members of the United States House of Representatives to threaten other members on the other side of the aisle with assault rifles.

Fortunately, at least for now, the Democrats have a majority in the House.

Posted February 5, 2021

Biden the Reformer

Joe Biden sells himself as a moderate, and his entire political career has been premised on his image as a centrist who can work across the political aisle. But, the former vice president is poised, if elected, to push the most progressive agenda in decades.

Biden has stressed his moderation and fundamental decency during the campaign. He and advisers know that President Donald Trump’s irresponsibility, ignorance, divisiveness, and failed administration are driving many conservatives to back a Democrat. Pushing a radical agenda now might force some of those discontented formerly Republican voters — not to mention former Democrats who voted for Trump in 2016 — to stay away and either not vote or hold their noses and vote for Trump. 

Yet, at the same time, Biden recognizes that rising economic inequality requires a more just society, one that redresses the obscene concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Biden also realizes that any attempt to promote even a modicum of economic equality must address the systemic racism that plagues American society, which has come to the forefront under the racist incumbent in the Oval Office.

American history has alternated between eras of reform followed by periods of consolidation. The reformist impulse was particularly evident in the last century during three significant eras of rapid change. The first was the Progressive era of the first two decades of the 20th century. Progressivism was an impulse that coursed through both major parties while absorbing ideas from the Populists of the 1890s — a labor-farmer coalition dissimilar from the right-wing nationalist populism of today — and Socialists like Eugene Debs. Progressivism was a middle-class movement of Americans convinced that the concentration of corporate power and the presence of widespread corruption had undermined the nation’s democratic origins. Progressives pushed an agenda focusing on trust-busting, regulating corporate power, and enacting laws to encourage cleaner government. 

The Great Depression — America’s greatest economic crisis — ushered in the New Deal, which turned many Progressive ideas into law, such as unemployment insurance, minimum wages, and protection of collective bargaining. The administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the foundation of the modern social safety net with enactment of Social Security. His administration attempted to correct — through the tax code and regulation of corporate power — the economic inequality that marked the 1920s and contributed to the economic crash.

The New Deal — dependent on the votes of southern segregationists in Congress, then a core constituency of the Democratic Party — ignored the aspirations of African Americans. Pressure for racial equality built up after World War II, leading to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the last great reform era of the last century. Major Civil Rights legislation was enacted during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, an improbable steward of racial justice who, as a Texan in the Senate, had never manifested an interest in racial equality. But, Johnson succeeded the assassinated President John Kennedy, whose stalled agenda on civil rights and poverty Johnson proceeded to push. The new president had two advantages over Kennedy: A mastery of Congress learned as Senate Majority Leader and an active movement for racial redress goading the nation to act. Aiding Johnson was a mandate derived from his huge electoral victory in 1964. If Biden wins big on November 3, the similarities between 1964 and 2020 will be evident.

Several months ago, Neera Tanden, the president of the liberal Center for American Progress, laid out an agenda for change that drew on the three great reform movements of the 20th century. Tanden sent a copy of “A New Social Contract for the 21st Century” to the Biden campaign, which gave it a favorable review. Tanden’s essay called for extending the social safety net — paid family and medical leave, paid sick days, and expanded Medicare. She also demanded greater corporate responsibility to include consideration of the interests of workers and local communities. 

Much of what Tanden suggested has found its way into Biden’s agenda. The former vice president favors a huge jobs program, investment of up to $2 trillion in infrastructure and clean energy, raising of the the minimum wage to $15 an hour, stimulating the growth of manufacturing, and assistance with the cost of college education. Biden has also pushed a social agenda, calling for police reform while shunning the more radical proposals of the Democratic left on defunding. 

At heart, I suspect Biden remains the politician he has always been, a moderate who craves bipartisan compromise to advance the public good. But, the nation has changed and what worked decades ago is passé now. Americans are more divided than ever, and the center is shifting to the left. In adopting a program for a new era of reform, Biden is moving with the nation. But, implementation of a new agenda depends not only on a Biden victory, but a landslide victory. If the long lines in early voting are any indication, that landslide may happen.

Posted October 16, 2020

A Frightening Place

It was all bullshit. —  President Donald Trump, February 6, 2020, celebrating his Senate acquittal. It was the first time a president has used that profanity in a formal event on camera in the East Room of the White House. 

It does not quite have the forgiving tone of Abraham Lincoln’s “With malice toward none; with charity for all;” or Franklin Roosevelt’s call to struggle, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself;” or John Kennedy’s appeal to action, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country;” or Ronald Reagan’s challenge, ”Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” “It was all bullshit” passes for eloquence in the era of Trump, and the words exemplify the destruction this president has wrought on the nation’s sense of decency, fair play, honesty, and political comity.

Trump has wreaked havoc on the nation, from a dysfunctional foreign policy that rewards dictators and punishes longtime friends and allies to domestic policies that hasten environmental destruction, exacerbate climate change, contribute to increasing income inequality, and undermine healthcare. Many of Trump’s regressive policies can be undone by the stroke of a pen by the next president. Some of the recovery from Trumpism requires voters not only to throw him out of the White House but to elect enough Democrats in the fall to control both houses of Congress.

But, unfortunately, I fear Trump has done lasting damage to the nation, setting dangerous precedents for future presidents. His coarseness, his meanness, and his ability to corrupt the nation’s political processes and escape retribution may serve as a template for future presidents. The president’s ability to bend one of the nation’s political parties to his will damages the proud tradition of independent political action and the long history of courageous politicians speaking truth to power (Utah Senator Mitt Romney is the exception). Trump has recast the Republican Party into an instrument of his narcissism, making it a willing accomplice in his campaign to accrue near dictatorial powers and his undermining of the Constitution and the rule of law.

Trump also has succeeded in converting roughly 40 percent of the electorate into slavish supporters of his ill behavior willing to turn a blind eye to his lawlessness. Trumpistas support what can only be termed a “cult of personality,” which believes the leader can do no wrong. They go further, implicitly sanctioning Trump’s crass speech and despicable actions, suggesting that if the president does it, it is not illegal. Richard Nixon would have approved.

The president’s recent behavior is evidence that his impeachment and subsequent acquittal have emboldened him in his pursuit of dictatorial powers. In this, he is aided by his lackeys in control of key governmental agencies and his sycophants in Congress. 

Exhibit number one: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has turned over Hunter Biden’s confidential financial records to Republican Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin to aid Trump in his quixotic attempt to smear former vice president Joe Biden. Mnuchin acceded to the request the senators made one hour after Trump’s acquittal despite refusing to release Trump’s tax returns as required by law. 

Exhibit number two: South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham — often an unhinged defender of Trump — says Attorney General William Barr has “created a process” for Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, to feed the Justice Department dirt on the Bidens dug up in Ukraine. As in authoritarian nations, the organs of government are used to smear and damage the leader’s perceived enemies. At the same time, Barr has shut down six investigations into Trump and his businesses, and the attorney general has issued new rules to prevent the FBI and other law enforcement agencies from conducting politically sensitive investigations. Barr’s decree may be an attempt to prevent abuses such as those that occurred in 2016, or, it might be an attempt to insure that there are no probes of possible foreign interference in the 2020 election.

Exhibit number three: Trump has retaliated against two aides who testified under subpoena in the House impeachment inquiry. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, was recalled from Brussels, and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman was removed from his position at the National Security Council. Now, a president certainly is entitled to have aides whom he trusts, but the haste with which these firings were announced and the manner in which Vindman was ousted suggests Trumpian retribution against those he blames for impeachment. In Vindman’s case, his brother — who also had a government post — was removed as well (shades of Joseph Stalin ordering the deaths of the families of those he purged), and both Vindmans were escorted immediately from the White House. Both Sondland and Alexander Vindman were planning on leaving the administration soon, but Trump sought public vengenance. 

The recent firings confirm the suspicion that Trump wants only yes men and women working for him. Any president benefits from diverse opinions, but in the case of the current occupant of the Oval Office, the wish for lackeys serving him is particularly dangerous. Trump is an ignorant man made more dangerous because he is oblivious to his ignorance. No Team of Rivals as depicted in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s seminal study of Lincoln and his Cabinet for Trump. 

The nation is in a frightening place. Romney has been warned he would not be safe if he attends a conservative conference, and one-third of Republicans have a positive view of Vladimir Putin, the murderous, autocratic president of Russia who Trump clearly admires. And, our nation is led by a man who utters expletives in the White House, fires those who are not 110% for him, utters lies with abandon in the State of the Union, and blasphemes at the National Prayer Breakfast. Matters will only deteriorate if Trump is reelected and is encouraged to further consolidate authority. As it is, I fear what the months until the election hold for us.

Posted February 11, 2020

Just Say No, Joe

Joe Biden appears poised to announce a run for the presidency. He should reconsider his pending decision. For one thing, the former vice president should realize that history is not on his side. Most of the men — all men, so far — who served as vice president rose no higher.  Only four vice presidents were elected to the nation’s highest office in the next election.

Two of them — John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the first two vice presidents — were elected to the vice presidency and the presidency before the enactment of the 12th Amendment to the Constitution. Originally, the president was the candidate who came in first in the Electoral College; the vice president was the runner up. (Each elector cast two ballots for president.) That arrangement theoretically worked only if there were no political parties, which the framers of the Constitution hoped would be the case. But, during George Washington’s two terms, political parties — originally called factions — emerged, and, in 1796, the president — John Adams — was from one party, and his vice president — Thomas Jefferson — from another. That was, to say the least, messy.

Then came the even messier election of 1800 that resulted in a tie in the Electoral College between two Republicans — Jefferson and Aaron Burr, who was slated to be vice president under a plan whereby one elector who voted for Jefferson would not vote for Burr. Eventually, Alexander Hamilton persuaded some Federalists in the House of Representatives to vote for Jefferson over the crafty and untrustworthy Burr (Hamilton believed Jefferson a dangerous radical, but an honest man. For Hamilton, it was a case of the lesser of two evils). The 1796 and 1800 elections led to the passage of the 12th Amendment in 1804, which separated elections for the two offices. Since enactment of the 12th Amendment, electors pick a president and a vice president, guaranteeing that a president and his running mate will be paired. The 12th Amendment also underpins, in part, the two-party system.

After the passage of the 12th Amendment, only Martin Van Buren and George H.W. Bush were elected president immediately after their terms as vice president. Both failed to win reelection. Richard Nixon, Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, lost to John Kennedy in 1960, but won the presidency eight years later, then to become the only president ever to resign from office. His vice president, Gerald Ford, who was appointed to the position upon the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, served the remainder of Nixon’s term, but lost the next election. All the other vice presidents who became president did so upon the death of the elected president. John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Arthur never won election as president, while Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson were elected president after finishing their predecessor’s term.

Throughout the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, vice presidents were chosen to balance the ticket. Andrew Johnson became Abraham Lincoln’s vice presidential running mate in 1864 because Lincoln ran a unity campaign, even changing the party name temporarily from Republican to Union, and Johnson was a War Democrat from the South who remained in the Senate when Tennessee seceded in 1861. Vice presidents were expected to do no harm during elections and not much of anything while in office. They seldom sought the brass ring and were not thought of as presidential material. In recent years, presidents have given their number twos more responsibilities, and, as a consequence, vice presidents today have higher profiles than in the past. Richard Nixon had experience in the House and Senate before becoming vice president, and Eisenhower, who had ambivalent feelings about Nixon, granted his vice president an active role. 

Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, ran for president after Johnson, who, concluding the Vietnam War doomed his reelection chances, decided not to run again. Humphrey frequently was mentioned as presidential material and was the darling of Northern liberals. Until, that is, his support for “Johnson’s war” made him anathema to the Democratic left. He lost a close election to Nixon. Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s vice president, ran and lost in 1984, the election after Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan. And, then, there is Al Gore, who actually won the presidency but never served in the office. That, as they say, is another story.

With that bit of history, let us turn to Biden, who probably will not be influenced by the historical record. He is a good and decent man with a long and distinguished record. Biden heads or is near the top of the Democratic field in polls, a tribute to name recognition stemming from his many years in public service. But, the Democratic Party has moved to the left in recent years, and, while Biden is a liberal, he has not kept pace with the rest of the party. Because he has dilly-dallied in announcing his candidacy, Biden has lost the opportunity to recruit top-level aides to his campaign, including former advisers to President Barack Obama, women, and people of color. Recently, Biden has had to fend off accusations from multiple women who complained of his close physical contact and his penchant for touching people. No one has accused Biden of sexual harassment or any kind of abuse, but it opens the former vice president to accusations from opponents, or worse, veiled allusions. 

As a senator, Biden pushed legislation that lengthened criminal sentences, particularly for drug offenses committed by people of color. That legislation is responsible for the mass incarceration of African Americans. Biden has expressed regret that he could not provide Anita Hill — Clarence Thomas’s accuser during his confirmation hearing for a seat on the Supreme Court — “the kind of hearing she deserved.” It is a curious formulation given that Biden was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time of the Thomas hearing. Presumably, he could have run a hearing where Hill would not have been made into a villain.

The point is not that Biden is a bad man. It is only that he has been in politics a long time and has a long record, which gives his opponents lots of targets to hit. And, he is old — perhaps too old — in a party skewing toward youth (Bernie Sanders, this applies to you, too). So, here is a piece of unsolicited advice, Joe Biden: Rest on your laurels. Stay home, be the éminence grise of the Democratic Party while not sullying your good name on a run for the presidency.

Just say no, Joe. Who knows? Perhaps, the eventual Democratic president will name you secretary of state. That is a position for which you are well qualified.

Posted April 9, 2019

Doing the Unexpected

Presidents are often remembered for playing against type: Richard Nixon going to China is the classic example. One of the strengths of the great American experiment is that presidents — Nixon and others — often have defied expectations. Often elected — or placed on the ballot — on the basis of a set of ideas or policies, presidents frequently have changed course and taken a different path. Other presidents are remembered for exceeding expectations, or rising to the moment. Abraham Lincoln — who many thought a second-rate mediocrity before the Civil War — rose to the challenge to become the man who saved the Union and freed the slaves. The speech-challenged George W. Bush showed surprising eloquence in defense of Muslims following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

It is worth contemplating the nature of the American presidency and the 44 men who have held the post as we enter the second year of number 45’s tenure. A vile, crass, uneducated, and uninterested man, Donald Trump has proven as bad — perhaps even worse — than many feared. Elected as a virulent — even racist and xenophobic — opponent of immigration, Trump now has to decide whether he will pander to his base and maintain a hardline stance on immigration or whether he will run counter to his message and adopt a more conciliatory approach, especially regarding the Dreamers, immigrants brought illegally to this country as children by their parents.

Trump has been all over the issue, sometimes favoring helping the Dreamers, other times showing little sympathy for their plight. While the Senate may well devise a compromise to allow many, if not all, of the Dreamers to stay and become citizens, there is little reason to think the House will go along. And, there is even less reason to think the president would use the power of his office and the bully pulpit to drag recalcitrant Republicans in the lower chamber to a compromise.

Still, history may provide some lessons. It is doubtful that the president is a serious student of history, and it is equally doubtful that he could learn much from it, since he has demonstrated little interest in learning anything. Among Trump’s most obvious character traits are his certainty that he is smart and his unwillingness to recognize that there is much he does not know.

Many post-World War II presidents are remembered for doing the unusual. Harry Truman, an accidental president from a border state who showed little previous interest in the plight of African Americans, changed once in office. In 1948, Truman issued Executive Orders banning segregation in the armed forces and ensuring fair employment in the civil service. Even more startling is the example of Lyndon Johnson — another accidental president. Johnson, from a southern state, was chosen by John Kennedy to be his running mate to balance the ticket. Johnson was a profane man known to use racial epithets, yet his presidency witnessed passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act a year later, two of the most consequential pieces of civil rights legislation in American history. Johnson was not a passive bystander in the legislative process. Rather, he applied his formidable legislative skills — honed while he served as Senate Majority Leader — to cajole recalcitrant senators of both parties — both Northerners and Southerners alike — into supporting the measures.

Dwight Eisenhower surprised many with his warnings about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.” Many thought the former leader of Allied forces in Europe would bow out with a nostalgic “old soldier” speech reminiscent of General Douglas MacArthur’s good-bye. Instead, Eisenhower cautioned the nation to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” While Eisenhower’s exhortation did not affect American policy, few could ignore such a warning from a war hero.

But, It was Richard Nixon wjp most changed American policy in a significant and surprising way. A noted cold warrior, Nixon rose to fame as a red-baiter, charging his opponents for House and Senate seats with Communist sympathies. He cemented his national reputation with allegations that Alger Hiss, a State Department official, was a Soviet spy. Known to many as “Tricky Dick,” Nixon became the first and only president to resign in disgrace. But, before his ignominious end, Nixon turned American policy toward China around, traveling to the Communist nation America had shunned for more than two decades. Nixon ended the fiction that the remnants of Nationalist China on Taiwan represented the Chinese nation, recognizing the regime in Beijing as the legitimate representative of China. Perhaps, only a politician with such impeccable anti-Communist credentials as Nixon could have performed such a volte-face.

Similarly, Ronald Reagan achieved national recognition, in part, on the strength of his anti-Communism crusade. During his first term he dubbed the Soviet Union “the evil empire and spoke of leaving “Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history,” a comment Soviet leaders took as a direct threat. Yet, when Mikhail Gorbachev became the head of the Soviet Communist Party and reached out to Western democracies, Reagan proved a willing partner. The two men negotiated significant arms control treaties and, in the words of a Gorbachev spokesman, “buried the Cold War.” Like Nixon, Reagan was a cold warrior willing to seize an opportunity to change policy, and he ended up making history.

Can Trump do something similar on immigration: That is, abandon his hardline rhetoric and agree to a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers? Trump is not known as a president willing to buck his core supporters among voters or in Congress. Yet, as a man with few, if any, fixed views, perhaps a change on immigration policy is possible, not only regarding the Dreamers, of whom he has spoken sympathetically on occasion, but on all contentious immigration issues.

History tells of many precedents regarding past presidents, if only the current president will listen.

Posted January 26, 2018

Democratic Vulnerability

Demographics, recent voting history, early polls, and the zaniness of the Republican presidential field all suggest Hillary Clinton should win the presidency in 2016.

But there is one issue that might yet stymie Clinton’s advance to the White House: The toughness issue, which has two components. Democrats are vulnerable to Republican charges of being soft on national security and weak on law and order.

The death of Osama bin Laden temporarily gave Democrats the edge on national security. But the rise of the Islamic State has rejuvenated the debate over which party is best equipped to combat terrorism. The recent attack in Garland, Texas, in which a police officer killed two gunmen who planned to attack a cartoon contest depicting the Prophet Muhammad, has raised the specter of terrorism at home. The pending nuclear deal with Iran, long a sponsor of international terrorism, also gives Republicans fuel to attack Democrats on national security.

Republican presidential candidates trotted out hardline positions on terrorism and national security in a conservative summit this past weekend in Greenville, South Carolina. Ted Cruz said that the police officer in Texas who killed the gunmen, who were likely inspired by the Islamic State, helped them “meet their virgins,” a reference to the alleged belief that martyrs are greeted in heaven by dozens of virgins. Bobby Jindal commented that the attackers were foolish to strike in a Southern state where people believe gun control “means hitting your target.” And Marco Rubio quoted the actor Liam Neeson in the movie Taken: “We will look for you, we will find you, and we will kill you.”

Tough language on terrorism plays well in South Carolina, which is home to numerous military bases and a large population of veterans. It was probably no coincidence that Rand Paul, who many perceive as an isolationist, was the one prominent GOP candidate who skipped the conference.

The GOP has a long history of bashing Democrats on national security and foreign policy. The post-World War II charge of “soft on communism” bedeviled Democrats for decades. Republicans accused the Truman administration of “losing China,” an accusation that probably encouraged Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to take hawkish positions on Vietnam. The Bush administration response to 9/11 arose at least in part out of the sense that America had to attack someone, somewhere to show its toughness, despite the lack of evidence linking Iraq to al-Qaeda. Senator Hillary Clinton may have voted to authorize the Iraq fiasco out of fear of looking weak on terrorism.

Similarly, Republicans have used “law and order” as a wedge against Democrats. In 1968, Richard Nixon won a landslide victory by stoking fears of out-of-control urban rioters. The Watts riots of 1965 — while not the nation’s first incident of urban unrest — was the first riot televised live. News helicopters hovered over Los Angeles neighborhoods transmitting pictures to horrified viewers. Nixon, the candidate of law and order, saw an opportunity that he exploited fully three years later when the assassination of Martin Luther King triggered riots in Washington, Baltimore, Chicago, and other cities. At the same time, the anti-Vietnam War movement unleashed demonstrations. While mostly peaceful, the protests had a violent side as well, which Nixon capitalized on in televised campaign ads appealing to the so-called “silent majority.”

Riots in reaction to police murders of young African-American men erupted this year in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, while supporting demonstrations occurred in other cites, snarling traffic and closing stores. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 96 percent of respondents believe there will be more racial disturbances this summer. The racial divide on the causes of the protests is striking: 60 percent of blacks say they reflect “long-standing frustrations about police mistreatment of African Americans,” while 58 percent of whites say the rioters were justing looking for an excuse to loot.

Those numbers may tempt Republicans to resurrect Nixon’s 1968 strategy and trumpet “law and order” as a way to drive a wedge between Democrats and white voters. The opening salvos have already appeared. Conservative columnist Bill Kristol tweeted after the Baltimore disturbances: “Winning GOP message: Against anarchy & chaos, at home & abroad.” Donald Trump made the appeal explicitly racial: “Our great African American President hasn’t exactly had a positive impact on the thugs who are so happily and openly destroying Baltimore!” And on Fox Business, Lou Dobbs announced “there is a war on law enforcement” that is “corroborated if not condoned by this administration.”

2016 is not, of course, 1968. Much has changed since Richard Nixon stoked white fears. Many Americans are more sensitive today to the despair and poverty that underlie urban unrest. The election — twice —  of an African-American president indicates that many are immune to outright racist appeals. Most importantly, changes in demography mean that minorities comprise a much higher percentage of the voting population today than when Nixon ran for president.

But despite progress and change, Hillary Clinton should take note. Republicans will not be shy about accusing her and the Democratic Party of softness on national security and of weakness on law and order, especially if the next two summers turn out to be long and hot in the nation’s cities.

Posted May 12, 2015