Years, there have been major eruptions of...

IN THE LAST 104

May 07, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

IN THE LAST 104 years, there have been major eruptions of civil violence during the administrations of six presidents -- and in every case the incumbent's party lost the White House in the next election, as I reported last Monday.

But many believe that the L.A. riots are going to help George Bush, and I think they are right. Because I believe that what happened after the last such riots in the late 1960s permanently transformed the Republicans into the Get-Tough-With-Criminals Party and the Democrats into the Get-at-the-Root-Causes-of-Crime Party. Given such a choice (or fooled into believing that's the choice), voters will choose the former every time.

The Gallup Organization used to ask people a Goldilocks question: Is the government moving too fast, too slow or just right on integration? In the mid-1960s there was a rough equilibrium: About as many citizens thought things were moving too fast as did not.

Even as late as the week of black rioting in 125 cities after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. in April, 1968, the breakdown was 39 percent "too fast," 46 percent "too slow" and "just right" combined.

But by October of that year, after two months of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew reading the riot act in the presidential campaign, that had become 54-38 "too fast." And racial justice and crime had become closely linked in the national mind.

The Democratic candidate for president, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, was all for law and order on the stump, too, but voters didn't believe him. Why? Because his president, Lyndon Johnson, had said after the 1965 Watts riot, that "unjust conditions" explained riots. Worse, Humphrey said, after describing a slum he had visited, "I've got enough spunk in me to lead a mighty good revolt under those conditions."

That pretty much ended the Democrats as a presidential party. They've been on the wrong side (electorally speaking, not morally) of the law and order issue ever since, with the well-known results.

I can't help but believe the well-known results are going to recur again this year. The White House has already begun playing up the law and order issue and its evil twin -- Democratic social policies of the 1960s are the causes of riots and proliferating crime.

Pollster Daniel Yankelovich told the Democratic Leadership Council last weekend not to worry about law and order, that the economy is still their big issue. Maybe, but if the Democrats cede the crime issue once again, the best economic platform ever won't elect Bill Clinton. When it comes to using the crime card to trump the economy card (or any other), Nixon and Agnew were amateurs compared to George ("I'll do whatever it takes to win") Bush.

What a sad prospect. I'm going to change the subject to something relatively light and uplifting.

Next week: Two columns on lymphoma, cardiac failure and infantile paralysis.

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