WASHINGTON — Washington. -- In the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972, the centerpiece of Richard Nixon's appeal to ''the white backlash'' was his promise to ''take crime out of the streets.''
''He did -- and put it in the White House,'' one wag observed, as many Nixon aides were going to prison.
Ronald Reagan won millions of votes in 1980 with his vows to restore ''law and order,'' a cry that still was sellable in 1984 even though the Reagan administration itself was clearly riddled with money-grubbing lawbreakers.
George Bush demolished Michael Dukakis in 1988 partly because he ran as much against Willie Horton, a black murderer who raped a white woman while on prison furlough, as he did against Mr. Dukakis.
In a speech in Pittsburgh last week, the president made it clear that his re-election campaign will feature more of the same. He called for tougher penalties and a curtailment of rights of the accused and convicted as a way to bring ''order to streets decimated by lawlessness and chaos.''
It is fair to point out that Messrs. Nixon, Reagan and Bush have presided over the streets, and the law enforcement machinery, for 19 of the last 23 years, but they have nothing to show for their promises of law and order. Many cities will see all-time record numbers of murders this year. The nation's prisons and jails bulge with record numbers of inmates, and Mr. Bush's Justice Department wants billions of dollars for new prisons to hold an expected horde of new criminals.
Why, then, have these hollow anti-crime campaign promises worked so well for the Republican Party? First, because they appeal to a mentality that says criminals are inherently bad people who do not deserve Bill of Rights protections, and who can never be rehabilitated. Second, because these campaigns appeal to racial fears and passions, to white people who think only of some black, Hispanic or Oriental person when the phrase ''violent street crime'' is uttered.
''We must remember that the first obligation of a penal system is to punish those who break our laws . . . You can't turn bad people into saints,'' Mr. Bush said to the applause of 3,000 policemen.
The Washington Post recently printed a telling quote from Stuart Scheingold, author of ''The Politics of Street Crime,'' who said campaigning against street crime is ''a way of mobilizing the white middle- and upper-class constituency on which Bush depends. . . . It's a way of trying to play racial politics without sounding racist.''
You don't need a Ph.D. in psychology to understand that since a disproportionate number of street crimes are committed by minorities whose victims are also likely to be minorities, Mr. Bush's white constituents see fearsome black and brown images when crime is discussed. Most whites see a Willie Horton, not a Jeffrey Dahmer in Milwaukee killing one person after another, or a Donald Leroy Evans in Mississippi, confessing to one murder and claiming that he killed 59 other people, from Florida to South Dakota.
No white voter has to grapple with self-guilt if he or she can believe that Mr. Bush's ''bad people'' are non-whites.
The GOP's not-so-subtle resort to the politics of racism has been incredibly successful. As Mr. Nixon foresaw in 1960, it took ''the solid South'' away from the Democrats. But the tactic is a corrosive force in this society. It fuels the hatreds that inspire more violence, which will provoke more attempts to weaken the Bill of Rights.
I think the intellectual George Bush knows this. But I expect the political Bush to spend most of 1992 filling the air with rhetoric about crime, appealing shamelessly to that never-vanishing ''white backlash.''
Carl Rowan is a syndicated columnist.