Kenosha, Wisconsin, has become the epicenter of the 2020 race for the presidency as the issue of law and order grows in importance. Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden showed as much by going to Kenosha last week. Of the two candidates, Biden has the greater need to handle the issue well. Trump has the greater probability of success. Neither has yet emphasized what can be done to reduce the violence following the conclusion of the election, or whether he can cope with the challenges of making our cities more livable.
Biden’s greater need stems from the fact that the more concerned Americans become with law and order, the less likely they’re willing to trust Democrats with its maintenance. This may well be considered ancient history, but a case in point is that of 1968, when America was roiling with racial and anti-war riots. Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic presidential nominee won less than 43% of the popular vote. Richard Nixon won just over 43%. But he would probably have won far more votes had it not been for the presence of Alabama governor George Wallace running as a third-party candidate for President. Wallace, like Nixon, advocated “law and order” in contrast to Humphrey’s call for “order and justice.” Together, the two law and order candidates won 57% of the vote.
A look at more modern history supports this point. My favorite opinion journal, the conservative National Review, has noted that in 2016 polls showed Hillary Clinton leading Trump in Wisconsin by margins raging 8% to 15%, but her support began to drop after a race riot in Milwaukee following a police shooting. Trump ultimately carried Wisconsin.
So, argues the National Review, Biden had to do what Trump did in 2016 and Hillary did not—actually go to Wisconsin. Biden hopes, not unreasonably, that a visit showing his concerns will reduce the degree to which Post-Kenosha public opinion may begin to shift to Trump. But will this be enough? Biden has a tightrope to walk. On the one hand, he must show he supports law and order and condemn violence as vigorously as Trump does. If he’s successful, he may yet win the moderate White “suburban housewives” who could tip the outcome of the election one way or another. But his law and order stance must avoid offending those on the left of the political spectrum. Otherwise, while they won’t support Trump, they may decide to stay home in November.
Trump right now is in a stronger position. He may have to effectively answer Biden’s charges that he’s been fanning the flames of racial unrest for the past 3 years. But the continuing economic recovery, with more jobs and a declining unemployment rate, is strengthening his overall position. He’s trailing Biden in Wisconsin, but not by as much as he was trailing Clinton in 2016. He can more easily make up the public opinion deficit with his strong endorsement of the police. Moreover, he can point to a fact which Democrats must find most embarrassing: Most of the cities in which the protests and riots have been occurring are led by Democratic mayors. Baltimore’s last elected Republican Mayor left office in 1967; Chicago’s in 1931; Detroit’s in 1962; Minneapolis’s in in 1961; Portland’s in 1956; Rochester, New York’s in 1973; Seattle’s in 1969; and St. Louis’s in 1949. One can ask why, in all these years of Democratic-led city government more hasn’t been done to alleviate the conditions giving rise to Black rage.
In fairness to the Democrats, it must be admitted that there’s frequently less to the power of city governments, whether run by Democrats or Republicans, than meets the eye. Some mayors have the power to be relatively effective political and governmental leaders, while others head governments in which most other major executives are either independently elected or appointed by city councils. And all cities are really administrative subdivisions of the states in which they’re located. As such, their powers are frequently limited by state constitutions and laws which tell them what taxes they can collect at what rates, how their funds are to be spent, and what programs they can or cannot pursue. Nonetheless, one can fairly ask why the Mayor of Portland refused to help restore order at the beginning of his city’s unrest, when protesters and rioters first began to threaten federal facilities there last summer (like the Mayor of St. Louis, he’s fled his home as the protesters now target him for violence). What does it say about the judgment of the Mayor of Seattle, who dismissed early lawlessness as simply meaning Seattle was about to experience a “Summer of Love?” And what can be said about the decision of the Mayor of Rochester, New York, to cover up the most recently revealed police-related atrocity—the suffocation of a mentally ill Black man last March?
Both Biden and Trump have their challenges—Biden, to maintain his lead, Trump, to regain it. How each candidate addresses the emerging issue of law and order is critical. But whatever challenges each candidate faces over the next two months will shrink in significance compared to the challenge the winner will face come next January 20: How to actually make our cities more livable, restore law and order, and promote justice as well.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.