Column: Expect campus uprisings to cause headaches for Democrats this election

Westwood, CA - May 06: Pro-Palestinian supporters demonstrate in Bruin Plaza after arrests were made at the Westwood campus of UCLA on Monday, May 6, 2024 in Westwood, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Pro-Palestinian supporters demonstrate in Bruin Plaza after arrests were made at the Westwood campus of UCLA on Monday in Westwood. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Don’t be surprised if these annoying protests on college campuses turn out bad for Democrats. They usually do.

If history is any guide, Republicans will capitalize on the divided Democrats’ perceived weakness and appear to be the stronger party in November.

Already, Donald Trump seems to have benefitted from the heavy news media focus on pro-Palestinian protests and their tent encampments. It has drawn attention away from the first criminal trial of a former president in the nation’s history.

Here’s a guy charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in connection with hush money paid to a porn actor to cover up an alleged sexual encounter at Lake Tahoe. And for several days, trial coverage was fogged by TV footage of campus protests. That is, until the porn star herself, Stormy Daniels, testified on Tuesday.

At any rate, what should have been a two-week bright spotlight on the sins of the GOP’s prospective presidential nominee was dimmed by campus turmoil, which included antisemitic chants, threats toward Jewish students and cancellation or reshuffling of commencement ceremonies.

One danger for Democrats is that many voters will view the campus disobedience as another sign that America — including left-governed California — is headed in the wrong direction. For months, polls have shown that voters believe the nation and this state are off on the wrong track.

Read more: 55 years after Reagan took on Berkeley, Newsom stays in the background amid roiling campus protests

What we’re now seeing at universities —especially major ones like USC, UCLA and Columbia — could be viewed as another incidence of failure by institutional and government leaders to act. They’re not in control.

It’s another sign like “smash and grab” thefts at retail stores. And rampant homelessness — tent encampments on sidewalks and in parks.

Now the tent encampments have sprouted on college campuses and are occupied by privileged students.

“Students’ rights are being trampled by protestors and administrators who are unable or unwilling to protect students,” state Assembly Republican leader James Gallagher asserted in a statement Tuesday. That’s just an example of what we can expect from the GOP as long as the protests continue.

Dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters were arrested Monday morning at UC San Diego.
Dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters were arrested Monday morning at UC San Diego. (Gary Robbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In roily times like these, voters tend to look for strength in candidates — not wishy-washy politicians trying have it both ways and not offend anyone.

M. Steven Fish, a political scientist at UC Berkeley, put it this way in a New York Times op-ed Tuesday:

“Politics is a dominance competition, and Mr. Trump is an avid and ruthless practitioner of it. He offers a striking contrast with most Democrats, who are more likely to fret over focus-group data and issue ever more solemn pledges to control prescription drug prices.”

He added: “Today’s Democrats … have grown obsessively risk-averse, poll-driven, allergic to engaging on hot-button issues (except perhaps abortion)— and more than a little boring.”

Agreed, but I don’t give Democrats —including Gov. Gavin Newsom — much credit for pounding away on abortion rights. They’re trying to make it a hot-button campaign issue. There’s nothing controversial about abortion among Democrats — not like taking a firm, unequivocal position on the Israel-Hamas war.

President Biden deserves credit for being solid in his support for Israel while trying to broker a temporary cease-fire.

On Tuesday, at a Holocaust remembrance ceremony, he decried a “ferocious surge” in antisemitism.

“People are already forgetting” who started the Israel-Hamas war, Biden said. “They’re already forgetting that Hamas unleashed this terror, that it was Hamas that brutalized Israelis, that it was Hamas who took and continues to hold hostages. …

“In America, we respect and protect the fundamental right to free speech, to debate and disagree, to protest peacefully and make our voices heard. But there is no place on any campus in America … for antisemitism or hate speech or threats of violence of any kind— whether against Jews or anyone else.

“Violent attacks, destroying property is not peaceful protest. It’s against the law.”

So, Biden is being strong. His problem, of course, is age discrimination. He’s acting strong, but he’s 81 and physically frail — and he stutters. So he appears weak to many voters. And he’s in particular danger of losing young voters. Polls have shown they harbor an unfavorable view of Israel.

Trump is the strongman for his worshipers.

Read more: A staggering two weeks at UCLA: Protest, violence, division mark 'dark chapter'

Republican Ronald Reagan was the strongman candidate running for governor in 1966 with the invaluable help of “free speech,” “dirty speech” and anti-Vietnam War protests at UC Berkeley.

Reagan quickly picked up on public anger with the “mess at Berkeley.” The prestigious school was inaccessible to most Californians. Only an elite sliver of the state’s high school students were granted admission. Voters felt the privileged kids should study more and demonstrate less.

The actor-turned-politician called the protesters a “minority of malcontents, beatniks and filthy-speech advocates.” And he constantly declared they should “obey the rules or get out.”

He beat the weak-seeming Gov. Pat Brown in a landslide.

Then, in 1968, antiwar protests — particularly the bloody riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago — helped elect Republican Richard Nixon president. Democrats were bitterly divided over the Vietnam War, and their nominee, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, was weak.

U.S. combat operations in Vietnam continued for five more years.

In 1976, former San Francisco State President S.I. Hayakawa, a Republican, was elected to the U.S. Senate after establishing himself as an iconic hero for standing up to campus antiwar demonstrators.

These pro-Palestinian protests can’t be equated to the years-long anti-Vietnam war demonstrations. America’s youth was being drafted to die in combat —more than 58,000 of them did — in an unwinnable, foolish war. Relatively few Americans are directly affected by the Israel-Hamas fighting.

The Democratic Party should hope that the campus protests end when the summer breaks begin — and don’t restart in the fall.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.