As Biden’s Coalition Fractures, Anti-Israel Protests Could Prove, as Senator Sanders Suggests, To Be His ‘Vietnam’

The campus protests that have raged for weeks feel like 1968 in miniature.

Via Wikimedia Commons
The National Guard and demonstrators outside the Democratic nominating convention at Chicago, September 1, 1968. Via Wikimedia Commons

“This may be Biden’s Vietnam.”

Senator Sanders’ warning couldn’t be starker.

The campus protests that have raged for weeks feel like 1968 in miniature.

President Lyndon Johnson dropped his re-election bid that year when another senator critical of the incumbent’s foreign policy — Vietnam in that case, Israel and Palestine today — proved that a substantial number of Democrats were prepared to abandon the president. 

Senator McCarthy played the role of Mr. Sanders back then.

McCarthy didn’t have a prayer of beating Johnson in the primaries, much as Mr. Sanders wasn’t up to the task of defeating President Biden in 2020.

Only McCarthy, like Mr. Sanders now, knew how passionately young, progressive Democrats opposed the president.

And waiting in the wings to replace McCarthy as Johnson’s challenger was a more formidable figure: Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

Mr. Biden had no trouble fending off Kennedy’s son in this year’s primaries, but Robert Kennedy Jr. remains in the presidential race as an independent.

The idiosyncratic Mr. Kennedy could conceivably take votes from either Mr. Biden or President Trump.

Yet it’s Mr. Biden’s coalition that’s fracturing, and any other options on the ballot threaten to soak up the protest vote.

It’s not just Mr. Kennedy the president has to worry about.

Cornel West, like Mr. Kennedy running as an independent, and the Green Party also give angry or disillusioned left-wing voters an alternative.

Democrats have painful memories not only of 1968 — when chaos within their party, and on streets and campuses, led to President Nixon’s victory — but also of 2000, when Ralph Nader’s presence on the Green ticket sapped support for Vice President Gore in an election that came down to a handful ballots in a Florida recount. 

Whether or not Mr. Nader pulled enough votes from Mr. Gore on Election Day to cost him the White House, the consumer advocate’s campaign was bad publicity for Mr. Gore throughout that fall, spotlighting divisions on the left.

Mr. Biden can ill afford any cracks in his coalition.

When they aren’t blaming Russia for Mr. Trump’s victory over Senator Clinton in 2016, Democrats blame that year’s Green Party nominee, Jill Stein, for subtracting a small but badly needed number of votes from Ms. Clinton’s column. 

Discontent with Mr. Biden over Israel is louder than complaints about Mr. Gore in 2000 or Ms. Clinton in 2016.

Mr. Sanders says trouble isn’t limited to campuses:

“I worry very much that President Biden is putting himself in a position where he has alienated, not just young people, but a lot of the Democratic base, in terms of his views on Israel and this war,” the Vermont senator told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

The Biden campaign national co-chairman, Mitch Landrieu, called the Vietnam comparison an “overexaggeration” in a CNN appearance of his own on Sunday. 

Only if today’s protests don’t match the scale and fury of the Vietnam era’s demonstrations, it’s also the case that Mr. Biden doesn’t have the achievements or stature that Johnson had.

Even protests a fraction of the size of those in 1968 might suffice to take down a president whose electoral coalition is built on the shaky foundations of the modern Democratic Party — which demonstrated in 2000 and 2016 just how vulnerable it is to even modest challenges from the left.

Of course, Republicans thought the specter of 1968 would work to Mr. Trump’s advantage four years ago, too, and they were mistaken.

The protests and riots following the death of George Floyd didn’t make voters flock to Mr. Trump in the name of rallying law and order. 

Instead, the unrest simply made the Republican incumbent look weak, a leader who’d lost control of the situation.

Now it’s Mr. Biden’s turn to appear powerless to unite the country — or even his own side.

It was a Democratic president, Harry Truman, who first recognized the state of Israel in 1948.

Yet after 1968, the party’s left wing wholly embraced an ideology of “anti-colonialism,” which meant support for radical movements throughout the developing world — and which saw Israel not as a homeland for an oppressed minority but as an imperialist venture.

Pragmatic Democrats knew that view was politically suicidal.

Yet to root it out within institutions aligned with the party — like college campuses — would have alienated too many valuable constituencies. 

The task called for courage that centrist liberals lacked.

Now Mr. Biden reaps what Democrats have sown for half a century.

The president and his party can’t be pro-Israel and also anti-colonialist, not as long as professors and student activists define the theory and practice of anti-colonialism.

Yet to cast off anti-colonialism would mean calling into question bedrock beliefs about victimhood and oppression at home too.

There is a constituency for those beliefs, and Democrats depend on it.

The Vietnam era never really ended for the Democrats; the party only has papered over its contradictions ever since 1968.

Today’s campus protests have ripped off the wrapper, and they’re forcing on Mr. Biden a choice he can’t, or won’t, make.

The New York Sun

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