WASHINGTON ? Since the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965, generations of Republicans from Richard M. Nixon to the first George Bush have deftly capitalized on the anxiety of white voters over crime and urban unrest, winning elections with appeals for law and order and unbending support of the police.
But in recent years, with crime plummeting and the party struggling among minority voters, some Republicans have turned away from the tough talk and embraced efforts to reduce the number of black men in prison and overhaul the criminal justice system.
Now the violence and protests after two grand juries declined to prosecute white police officers who killed black men, as well as the killings of two New York City police officers, have angered some of the party?s most ardent defenders of the police. Republicans find themselves debating how to maintain their traditional embrace of law enforcement while not alienating minority voters or ignoring systemic criminal justice issues.
The divisions have spilled out on television in recent days. Former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York declared on Fox News that the protests were leading to violence and that ?all lead to a conclusion: The police are bad, the police are racist. That is completely wrong.?
Representative Peter T. King of New York said his fellow Republicans cannot be timid about criticizing activists like the Rev. Al Sharpton, who Mr. King said used racially charged terms to portray the killings of African-Americans by the police in Ferguson, Mo., and on Staten Island.
?I just think if anything, Republicans somehow get scared off of the issue if race comes up and they somehow back away, and that allows people who want to make it a racial issue to be heard,? Mr. King said in a telephone interview.
What makes this moment more complex for Republicans, however, is that Mr. Sharpton is not the only one who has criticized police mistreatment of minorities and the broader justice system: Leading Republicans, including Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, governors and Christian conservatives, have been rethinking issues ranging from the militarization of the police to sentencing guidelines.
Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, acknowledged that he was ?very hard-line? on crime during his political ascent in the 1980s and ?90s. The second legislative proposal in the “Contract with America,” which he and fellow Republicans used to win the House majority in 1994, was termed “The Taking Back Our Streets Act,” and included longer prison sentences, money for prison construction and additional police officers. But Mr. Gingrich argued that changes to the criminal justice system are needed and would not be deterred after the events over the past month.
?It?s not hard to distinguish between anti-police rhetoric and being concerned that, both in terms of human development and financial costs, we adopted some policies that didn?t work,? Mr. Gingrich said.
The question now is whether the racially tinged unrest, occurring at the outset of a highly competitive presidential nominating contest, will resurrect old resentments and stymie Republican efforts to reach out to African-Americans and grapple with the justice system issues.
After years of instinctively siding with the police ? with Ronald Reagan railing against ?arson and murder in Watts? in his 1966 campaign for governor and Mr. Bush using Willie Horton?s furlough to defeat Michael S. Dukakis ? Republicans are now more divided when it comes to crime and law enforcement. This is in part because of raw politics: The country is increasingly diverse, and the party can no longer win presidential elections without making inroads among minority voters.
But there are also deeper tensions between the Republicans? traditional tough-on-crime approach and a rising skepticism about government power among conservatives and libertarians in the party. Few prominent figures sided with the authorities in the aftermath of Michael Brown?s death in Ferguson, for example, and Mr. Paul notably spoke out about the treatment of young blacks by the police.
Conservatives beyond Mr. Paul were disturbed by the military-style tactics and equipment of the Ferguson police during the protests in the weeks after Mr. Brown?s death.
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