Steven Roberts: Biden needs distance from chaos

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 12, 2024

By Steven Roberts

Sen. Bernie Sanders argued recently that the ongoing conflict in Gaza “may be Biden’s Vietnam.”

In military terms, that’s a wildly inaccurate statement. There is simply no comparison between Vietnam, where more than 58,000 American troops died, and Gaza, where no U.S. soldiers are deployed on the ground. 

Politically, however, Sanders has a point. Just as Vietnam helped sink the Democratic ticket in 1968, Gaza poses a risk for Joe Biden today. And the president — who was first elected to the Senate in 1972 — is well aware of the threat. 

That’s why he’s trying to chart a middle course: defending the principle of free speech while condemning demonstrators who violate the rights of others. As the president starkly stated: “There’s the right to protest, but not the right to cause chaos.” 

But never underestimate the ability of liberal Democrats to commit political fratricide. Sanders and his allies are aggravating Biden’s problem by praising and encouraging the student demonstrators, who are handing Republicans a potent tactical weapon. 

“This is exactly the sort of chaos that turns off suburban voters who will decide the election,” Alex Conant, a Republican strategist, told the Washington Post. 

“Trump is going to be out there every day saying, ‘Chaos, chaos, chaos,'” warned Democratic consultant Joe Trippi.

In 1968, I covered the student uprising at Columbia University for the New York Times, as well as the rebellion at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Over the next few years, as the paper’s Los Angeles correspondent, I was tear-gassed on many of America’s finest campuses. Today, protesters are camped out across the street from my office at George Washington University. 

So, I have some perspective on the issue of youthful unrest, and I can say flatly: The 2020s are not the 1960s. 

Back then, young men were faced with getting drafted — and perhaps killed. That deeply personal engagement spawned the visceral and virulent cry, “Hell no, we won’t go!” Gaza, for all its tragedy, is an abstraction to protesting students: a distant cause, not a direct threat. Rallying cries like “Free Palestine” or “Divest from Israel” strike very different chords than Vietnam-era chants.

There’s a larger point, as well: The Vietnam protests lasted for years; they sparked and shaped an entire generation, culturally and politically. Today, only a tiny fraction of college students are joining the protests, but their numbers are hugely magnified by social media and TV coverage that hungers for conflict. A recent Harvard poll found only 2% of young people listed Gaza as their main electoral concern, with 27% citing economic issues. 

Nor is there any comparison to the way authorities have reacted to the protests. In 1968, police violence was common in Chicago; two years later, National Guard troops killed four students at Kent State. Today, a few cops have roughed up a few students, causing few, if any, serious injuries.

And yet the Democratic left insists on mangling history. Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri tweeted, “On the 54th anniversary of the Kent State Massacre, students across our country are being brutalized for standing up to endless war.” This is stupidly, stunningly wrong — but then, Bush was part of the radical fringe that coined one of the most ill-advised and self-defeating political slogans of all time, “Defund the Police.” 

History clearly warns of the danger here to Biden’s reelection. In 1968, Richard Nixon shrewdly and effectively used the anti-war movement to brand Democrats as the party of flag-burning, pot-smoking hippies. In this view, the Republicans stood for law and order, while the Democrats stood for disorder, and those basic political identities helped usher in a whole generation of Republican domination. 

Starting in 1968, the GOP won five of the next six presidential elections, often by huge margins. And in both 2000 and 2016, liberals who voted for third-party candidates or simply stayed home helped defeat Democrats, who won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College. 

Biden and his supporters cannot afford to let that happen again. They cannot let lefties like Sanders and Bush define them to the voting public. As Conant put it, “I don’t think Biden wants to be associated with extremism. Biden wants to position himself as the person who can bring people together, the elder statesman who can be a force for normalcy and calm.”

That’s why Biden has asserted a balanced, rational position on the protests. He has to ensure that Trump and the Republicans — not the Democrats — are seen as the agents of chaos. 

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at