As Security Comes to the Forefront, Clinton Invokes Spirit of ’64

Gerald Herbert/AP; Andrew Harnik/AP

Gerald Herbert/AP; Andrew Harnik/AP

If only it were the economy. With the war in Syria and the refugee crisis raging on, self-proclaimed ISIS operatives wreaking havoc around the world and racial tensions in the U.S. at a boiling point, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will be heading into a general election defined by global and domestic security concerns.

“Hillary is a weak person,” Donald Trump said Saturday, referring to Clinton during his announcement of his vice presidential pick. “We are the law-and-order candidates, and we’re the law-and-order party. We’re going to change things around.”

The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, called Trump “always divisive, not so decisive” in a new video that used footage of Trump saying that he gathers his information on military actions from morning news programs.

What had seemed like the year of wage stagnation and student debt is on track to become a contest where voters decide which to gamble on: Trump’s contradictory brand of isolationist ‘law and order’ conservatism with global punitive reach, or Clinton’s promise of police reforms and an assertive — but not hasty — foreign policy.

When the conventions die down at the end of this month, two of the most hobbled candidates in their parties’ histories will compete to have the nuclear codes on their person and their finger on the proverbial button. Those stakes recall 1964’s race between the hard-right Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson, that year’s all-but-preordained Democratic nominee after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

The former secretary of state, herself a “Goldwater Girl” as a high school Young Republican, is already inviting the comparison. A new attack ad from Clinton’s camp brings back the actor who starred in 1964’s famous “Confessions of a Republican” TV spot, which helped to thin out Goldwater’s support among moderates. The ballooning mushroom cloud in the notorious “Daisy Girl” short didn’t hurt either.

Johnson’s victory that year still holds the record for the most decisive electoral win by a Democratic president, with only Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan besting his numbers.

And with general election season just a few weeks away, Trump is doing little to rise above the presidential bearing of the New Mexico Senator who once suggested the U.S. ”lob [a nuclear bomb] into the men’s room of the Kremlin.”

Following an unrelenting rise in the rate of fatal police shootings of black men and women and two resulting targeted attacks against police officers, it is an open question whether Trump can overtake Clinton’s claim to being the most qualified candidate to serve as commander in chief with blustering promises to stop the chaos with an authoritarian crackdown.

Trump, never one to disappoint a crowd by hewing to the party line, will have to muddle through the 2016 race paying at least minimal lip service to a Republican policy platform straight out of 1988. But ginning up populist support could become more difficult if Clinton chooses the Johnson campaign’s famous nuclear option and successfully casts him as a threat to American safety.

As contributor Alan Sternberg reminded PolitickerNJ earlier today, the Democratic Convention that year was where Johnson went from being a widely unpopular functionary to the party’s official nominee over the objections of the Southern caucus.

That shift was due in no small part to Senator John O. Pastore of Rhode Island, who helped whip support for Johnson into stiff peaks when he called Goldwater the plaything of ”reactionaries and extremists.”

Though goodwill toward Kennedy’s legacy and misplaced faith in Johnson’s willingness to prevent escalation in Vietnam played their part, Goldwater’s outsize personality and provocative policy platform offered Democrats an effective springboard for casting themselves as the party of the even keel.

And an even keel may be the opposite of what many voters want — Trump’s popularity has been buoyed by the lingering resentments of those left behind by the nation’s recovery from the economic recession of 2009. But mounting fear of social unrest and global instability could tilt the scales in Clinton’s favor if favorable polling on preparedness from her foreign policy experience holds.

Though Trump saw fantastic returns on the storybook simplicity of his proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border, wringing similar gains out of the recent killings in Minnesota, Louisiana and Dallas will be more challenging.

The former reality star has blamed the recent killings of police officers by disgruntled black veterans on the Black Lives Matter movement. That bid to profit politically from the resentments of a shrinking white majority is not likely to help him: a new Pew Research poll found that only 24 percent of adults of all backgrounds oppose it.

Signing the Civil Rights Act in 1965 proved to be political poison for Johnson and handed Nixon the south in 1968, a shift that turned many black and minority voting blocs majority-Democratic for decades. The deaths of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge are unlikely to bring Trump the same windfall.

Trump will have to convince skeptics on the right that he can build a coalition of experienced insiders to put that guiding principle into action, and Clinton will have to make the case to swing voters that she learned her lesson with her unpopular vote to invade Iraq in 2003 without precluding military action in the future.

Following an email scandal that even has many supporters shaking their heads, the presumptive Democratic nominee will find herself having to discredit a man whose popularity rests on audacity rather than previous experience or allegiance to the party. Goldwater shared some of Trump’s lack of concern with currying favor, famously calling Eisenhower’s administration a “dime store New Deal.”

Clinton, for her part, is taking the opposite tack of reaching out to Republicans leery of their own candidate as staunch critics like Bernie Sanders start lending their support to her. She is poised not just to attack Trump on his qualifications, but to signal to moderates in a tumultuous time that she is willing to follow in Johnson’s footsteps if necessary.