US Politics

Campus protests become a political liability for Joe Biden and the Democrats

Author: Editors Desk, James Politi in Washington Source: Financial Times
May 2, 2024 at 07:16
Pro-Palestinian protesters at the University of Texas at Dallas © A
Pro-Palestinian protesters at the University of Texas at Dallas © A

Unrest amplifies splits in the party over the Gaza conflict and gives Republicans new fodder for campaign attacks

Republicans are seizing on campus turmoil from New York to California as they attack Joe Biden for failing to quell the protests over Israel’s war in Gaza and portray America as spiralling out of control under the US president’s leadership.

The unrest has amplified tensions within Biden’s Democratic party over his handling of the conflict in the Middle East, and taken some attention away from the trial of Donald Trump, the former president and presumptive Republican nominee in November’s election, on charges of falsifying documents in the New York “hush money” case.

“[Democrats] were trying to make a big deal out of these Trump trials, but they’ve taken a back seat” to the protests, said John Feehery, a Republican strategist and former congressional aide.

As dramatic scenes of police raiding an occupied building at New York’s Columbia University and counter-protesters attacking a pro-Palestinian encampment at the University of California, Los Angeles, unfolded this week, Trump was campaigning in Wisconsin during a break from the court proceedings.
He called on college presidents to “remove the encampments immediately, vanquish the radicals, and take back our campuses for all the normal students who want a safe place from which to learn”.

Trump also praised the crackdown by law enforcement in New York: “The police came in and in exactly two hours, everything was over. It was a beautiful thing to watch.”

On Fox News, one conservative news host said on Wednesday that images coming from colleges were like those in a “third world” country as rightwing commentators blasted Democratic politicians for the protests. “You’ve got the former president of the US on trial and these thugs who are creating incredible mayhem,” said a guest on the show, Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas.

The White House has sought to distance itself from the most aggressive protesters by denouncing “dangerous hate speech” displayed by some, and saying any demonstrations should be “peaceful and lawful”.

Karine Jean-Pierre, Biden’s press secretary, said the president would deliver a speech on antisemitism on Capitol Hill next week and was being “regularly” updated on the protests.

“A small percentage of students . . . should not be able to disturb or disrupt the academic experience,” Jean-Pierre said on Wednesday.

But Republicans have used the turmoil to depict Biden as weak and unwilling to confront his own leftwing critics or deliver more forceful public comments on the subject.

“When will the president himself, not his mouthpieces, condemn these hate-filled little Gazas?” Tom Cotton, the Republican senator from Arkansas, told reporters on Wednesday.

“President Biden needs to denounce Hamas’s campus sympathisers without equivocating about Israelis fighting a righteous war of survival,” Cotton added.

Feehery said the problem for Biden was that no one was “paying attention to him” and protesters were not “afraid” of him: “He should be supporting law and order. He’s like the parent who is trying to get the kids to be quiet by giving them more candy.”


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