CLEVELAND - In the eyes of Erin Swanson, a Texas delegate to the Republican National Convention, President Barack Obama bears blame for ambushes that killed police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
“I think that Obama’s been one of the biggest instigators of stirring up the race-baiting and hatred toward law enforcement,” the Ted Cruz delegate said Monday in Cleveland. “Every now and then he says a few nice things, but he’s the one stirring it up and putting the safety of our law-enforcement officers in jeopardy.”
Other delegates weren’t as quick to blame Obama. “He’s not responsible, he’s just not taking a strong stance,” Kenneth Eaton of Tennessee said. But there’s a belief among Republicans across the ideological spectrum that Obama, and would-be successor Hillary Clinton, haven’t been tough enough against those who commit acts of violence at home and abroad.
And with “Making America Safe Again” the theme of Monday’s GOP convention session, Republicans say Americans’ fears about terrorist attacks and the shootings of police officers should work in Donald Trump’s favor.
“I would guess that it probably is to his benefit,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said. “He’s been a very strong supporter of law enforcement, and he has also emphasized a stronger policy than the current administration against ISIS.”
Collins hastened to add that “it’s hard to know until both candidates put out their plans.”
Of course, Obama is not to blame for police being ambushed, nor is he responsible for terrorist attacks in Europe. He doesn’t condone either. He has spoken out about both types of killing far too often. Meanwhile, Donald Trump points at the fire and douses it with gasoline rather than finding a bucket of water.
At political conventions, the truth is in short supply. And this one surely is no exception.
The White House declined to comment for this column, but many law enforcement officers have praised Obama’s response to violence against police. His Sunday statement on the Baton Rouge shooting included a clear denunciation of such acts.
"Regardless of motive, the death of these three brave officers underscores the danger that police across the country confront every single day. And we as a nation have to be loud and clear that nothing justifies violence against law enforcement."
That doesn’t mean Democrats can dismiss the possibility of a public shift in attitudes toward tough talk from Trump in times of tumult. Trump uses a loaded appeal to voters’ sense of “law and order” — a relic from the Civil Rights era — while Obama now talks about the shootings of police officers with a similar-sounding argument that they are attacks on the “rule of law.”
Gail Griffin, a delegate from Arizona, echoed Trump’s new favorite phrase in a brief interview. “We’ve got a candidate who’s for law and order,” she said.
Democrats say Republicans are following in Trump’s footsteps by distorting Obama’s record and using divisive language to do it.
“Every chance he’s had the president has praised law enforcement and made clear that we have to bring communities together with law enforcement,” Luis Miranda, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said in Cleveland.
The idea that Obama has done anything but condemn violence against police officers “is just not true,” Miranda said. “That’s why we have an operation here in Cleveland at their convention to call them out and to hold them accountable and to tell the truth.”
But the perception persists among Republicans, even those who don’t blame him, that Obama isn’t doing enough and that Trump would do better.
“President Obama is trying to do it the nice way, the 'hug-‘em-and-they’ll-quit' way. But that’s not what it’s going to take. It’s going to take showing the force to stop ‘em,” Eaton said. “I’ll give you an example, it's Black Lives Matter that are blocking highways. Number one, that’s against the law. And if you go and start arresting each one of them, then you’ll get to the point that they won’t do it anymore.”
It’s an article of faith for Eaton that the Black Lives Matter movement and the police shootings “all corresponds together” — it must be an article faith, because there’s no evidence of that at all.
It is also a talking point. Milwaukee County Sheriff Dave Clarke, who is enjoying his 15 minutes of fame, called Black Lives Matter “purveyors of hate” in a CNN interview in which he blamed the group for attacks on law enforcement officers.
Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform and a longtime Republican influencer in Washington, says economics will be “front and center” in the election but that the rising attention to violence will be the second part of a one-two punch against Democrats.
“They didn’t create jobs and they didn’t make us safe,” Norquist said of Obama and Clinton, who served as his secretary of state for four years. “Either might do it but it doesn’t help to have multiple organ failure. And the Democrats have it.”
Republicans in Cleveland may be right: The violence we’re seeing on America’s streets may end up benefiting Trump. The middle could move based on fear. But my hunch is that the bulk of the American electorate won’t see things the way that Swanson does. They won’t look at Obama as a race-baiter who encourages or condones cop-killing. That’s as offensive as it is ridiculous. And the more they attack the popular president, the less they're attacking the Democrat who is actually on the ballot. That will backfire.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.
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