This Election Isn't 1968 or 1992 or 2016Historians in the News
tags: Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon, political history, presidential history, Donald Trump, 2020 Election
It's not 1968. Most of the quick analysis of the unrest, from politicians and from journalists, has pointed to the election of Richard Nixon to suggest events could help reelect the president. “He won on a law-and-order platform that appealed implicitly to white anxiety,” Edward Luce, referring to Nixon, wrote in the Financial Times. “Richard Nixon won the presidency by promising the country he would restore ‘law and order’ on the streets,” historian Julian Zelizer wrote for CNN.
The comparison fails in two important ways. First and most obviously, Nixon was not president in 1968. He was returning from political limbo to challenge, at first, an incumbent Lyndon Johnson and then by fall, Johnson's vice president. Every summer had seen riots break out in major cities, and every year, the crime rate surged. When Nixon told the Republican National Convention that “we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame,” he had no political power or responsibility over those cities.
“America is in trouble today not because her people have failed but because her leaders have failed,” Nixon continued. “What America needs are leaders to match the greatness of her people.”
President Trump has lashed out at mayors and governors, but arguing that all the country's “leaders” are failing is something an incumbent can't coherently do. That gets to the second problem: The law-and-order pitch stopped working for Nixon once he was sworn in. As Walter Shapiro recalled Sunday, polling ahead of the 1970 midterm elections found most voters disapproving of Nixon's crime record. In the Democrats' official pre-midterm message, Sen. Ed Muskie of Maine leaned in, accusing the president of flailing because he hadn't solved the crime problem.
“For four years, a conservative Republican has been governor of California,” Muskie said, referring to Ronald Reagan, the era's other major (non-Southern) law-and-order figure. “Yet there is no more law and order in California today than when he took office. President Nixon, like President Johnson before him, has taken a firm stand. A Democratic Congress has passed sweeping legislation. Yet America is no more orderly or lawful — nor its streets more safe — than was the case two years ago, or four, or six.”
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