It’s not too late for the Democrats running for the Senate and House to do what Sen. Ed Muskie (D-Maine) did for Democratic congressional candidates on the evening of the 1970 midterms: to tell the American people that the Republicans’ message that the Democrats are soft on crime is a lie. And they know it.
Let’s go back to the fall of 1970. Richard Nixon had won the 1968 election over Democrat Hubert Humphrey by less than a percentage point, but conservative former Alabama Gov. George Wallace ran as an independent and carried 13.5 percent of the popular vote and five southern states (Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia). The Republicans picked up five seats in both the House and Senate.
In 1970, Nixon decided to take advantage of the country’s unrest and anxiety over all the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, sometimes violent by the radical left on college campuses and elsewhere, and rising crime. He converted this crime issue into his slogan – “law and order” – and tried to declare in his speeches and in national ads that it was the Democrats who were “soft on crime.”
This is what we are now seeing as the dominant message (along with anti-immigration) from the national Republicans and their secret-money PACs on national TV ads during the Major League Baseball post-season games and all over the internet. And the Democratic response so far has been: almost nothing.
Maybe we can learn from the speech known as “Muskie’s Election Eve” speech – the one given by Muskie on Monday night, Nov. 2, 1970 – the night before the midterm elections.
The speech was paid for by private donations. Muskie, the Democrats’ 1968 vice presidential nominee known for his quiet moderation and compared sometimes to Abraham Lincoln in his looks and style, sat in front of a fireplace, live from Kennebunkport, Maine.
A lot of the country was apparently watching when he delivered these words:
“…[T]here are those who seek to turn our common distress [of crime and violence] to partisan advantage – not by offering better solutions – but with empty threat – and malicious slander.
“They imply that Democratic candidates for high office in Texas and California … in Illinois and Tennessee … in Utah and Maryland … and among my New England neighbors from Vermont and Connecticut – men who have courageously pursued their convictions … in the service of the republic in war and in peace – that these men actually favor violence … and champion the wrongdoer.
That is a lie.
And the American people know it is a lie.”
There is no statistical proof, but an awful lot of people talked about that speech in media and anecdotally on the street and at the polls, especially that last line. The results were not what Nixon and most “Rs” who saw the “law and order” issue working for them the same way Republicans now see the “crime” issue working for them two weeks from the 2022 midterms.
On Election Day 1970, the Republicans lost a net of 12 seats in the House, with the popular vote in the House favoring the Democrats by 54 percent to 45 percent. (Yet the Democrats still lost a net of three seats in the U.S. Senate.) A lot of people wondered that if the Muskie speech had occurred two weeks earlier, the results would have been even greater advantage for the Democrats and perhaps saved the losses in the Senate.
Now in 2022, it is strange, inexplicable, that Democrats have allowed the Republicans to claim to be the anti-crime party and allowed to go unanswered the lie that Democrats are soft on crime.
Which party is in favor of weapons of war and extensive background checks, favored by 70 percent or 80 percent of the American people? Democrats.
Which party has attempted to exploit the slogan “Black Lives Matter” while ignoring that Black lives suffer from crime and violence in the inner city far more than whites in the suburbs or rural areas? The Republicans.
Which party’s president has funded more cops on the street, and increased resources for community policing and support for local police? The Democrats.
Which party has leadership remaining silent while its former president and his extreme cast has demonized the FBI and minimized or tried to ignore the violent attacks on the Capitol Police on Jan. 6, and tried to make believe that Jan. 6 was just a normal “protest” by “patriots?” The Republicans.
It’s not too late. The World Series still remains for ads – and for all Democratic funding groups, from the congressional committees to the grassroots – to fund this focused message: “The Republicans imply that Democrats are soft on crime and they are tough on crime. That is a lie – and they know it is a lie.”
To me, the best person to repeat that message in a quiet, live statement into the TV cameras on election eve would be the president who represents decency, goodness and integrity, even to many Republicans who disagree with his policies:
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Lanny Davis served as a special counsel to President Bill Clinton in 1996-98 and on a privacy and civil liberties panel post-9/11 which advised President George W. Bush. He is a co-founder of the Washington law firm Davis Goldberg Galper PLLC, specializing in crisis management in support of litigation and other legal issues.