WASHINGTON -- The racial turmoil spreading out from Los Angeles has the potential to compromise and perhaps destroy whatever chance Gov. Bill Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee for president, may enjoy of defeating President Bush in the Nov. 3 election.
Superficially, it is Mr. Bush who seems on the spot, trying to balance his recognition of the legitimate anger over the verdict in the Rodney King beating case against condemnation of the lawlessness in the streets. But the president, unlike Mr. Clinton, doesn't have to balance priorities as he looks ahead to the general election. He has only minuscule support in the black community.
For any Democrat, racial polarization is destructive to the degree that it forces the party to appear to choose sides between blacks and whites. In Mr. Clinton's case, the bitterness likely to be left by the Rodney King affair and the subsequent rioting strikes directly at his strategy for winning the White House.
From the outset, the Arkansas governor has made two points directed at changing voter attitudes toward the Democratic Party on the race question. In one appearance after another, he has stressed to both blacks and whites the need for a greater rapprochement between the races. At the same time, he has beamed his campaign at the great middle class, meaning predominantly white workers who deserted the Democrats in such large numbers to support both Ronald Reagan and Mr. Bush for the presidency.
Mr. Clinton's approach was welcomed by moderate and conservative Democrats, who saw in it the opportunity to project the image of a party less captive of its constituencies -- including the single most loyal one, black voters -- than the Republicans would have the electorate believe. That was what Mr. Clinton seemed to be doing with his emphasis on Americans assuming greater "responsibility," whether they were corporate executives or welfare recipients. Indeed, although they consider Mr. Bush anathema, some black political leaders suspected Mr. Clinton's talk of "responsibility" was a coded approach to those white middle-class taxpayers most resentful of welfare costs.
But if the experience of the 1960s is any indicator of what may happen this year, such nuances won't have much relevance in the real world of presidential politics. It will be time to choose sides.
Both the non-violent protests against the war in Vietnam and the race riots in those years inspired a backlash among culturally conservative whites that had a clear political impact. Running for governor of California in 1966, Mr. Reagan used running criticism of protest movements and racial violence to crystallize the enthusiasm of social conservatives. Emerging from Alabama, then-Gov. George C. Wallace became a national figure by promising a hard line against demonstrators and the liberals who protected them.
Mr. Wallace didn't make it to the White House, but in 1968 he carried five states and drew enough normally Democratic voters away from the Democratic nominee, Hubert H. Humphrey, to cost him the electoral votes of two major states, Illinois and New Jersey. The volatility of the question was clear that year in the stress Richard M. Nixon, the ultimate winner, put on "law and order" and his promise "to restore the balance between the peace forces and the criminal forces."
Mr. Humphrey went through a difficult time 24 years ago that may be replicated for Mr. Clinton this year.
This time around there is no Democratic leader of national standing with the kind of rapport with the black community enjoyed in those days by Mr. Humphrey, John F. Kennedy in 1960, Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. Simply because of the passage of time, none of the leading officeholders in either party today has a history of being in the trenches during the civil rights movement and thus achieving an automatic acceptability among blacks.
Mr. Clinton has been winning the black vote by comfortable-to-wide margins in the primaries. And to have a chance against Mr. Bush, he needs a heavy turnout among blacks Nov. 3. He had hoped to accomplish that without paying a price among whites, but the aftermath of Los Angeles may be bitter enough to make that difficult, perhaps impossible.