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Politics chat: How U.S. support for Israel could impact the election

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

This morning, we're watching negotiations to halt violence between Israel and Hamas. Those talks are happening in Egypt. On NBC today, World Food Programme executive director Cindy McCain says there's famine in Gaza. And of course, there are ongoing protests on college campuses across the country. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us now. Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Ayesha.

RASCOE: President Biden went on the record this past week on that last item, the campus protests. Here's a bit of what he said from the White House Thursday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's basically a matter of fairness. It's a matter of what's right. There's the right to protest but not the right to cause chaos.

RASCOE: What was he trying to do there? Because campus protesters usually aren't going to be listening to presidential statements necessarily.

LIASSON: No, he's trying to strike a balance between free speech and lawlessness. He tried to make a distinction between peaceful protesting and then a list of things, which he said included vandalism, trespassing, smashing windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduation. The president said none of that is peaceful protest.

RASCOE: So what do you see as the politics of all this?

LIASSON: The politics are pretty simple - bad for Democrats, good for Republicans. You know, Republicans have been highlighting these campus protests because the war in Gaza is causing a deep rift inside the Democratic Party. President Biden has been losing support among young people and minority voters, partly because of his staunch support for Israel. And Republicans also want to make the recent upsurge of antisemitism a problem for Democrats. Now, yes, there are lots of Jewish students protesting, but there are also a lot of Jewish students who say they don't feel safe on their campuses.

And the other reason this is a big advantage for Republicans is because chaos in any form hurts the incumbent. Donald Trump's main argument against Biden is that the world is on fire on college campuses, on the southern border, in Eastern Europe, in Middle East. Biden is not in command, and the U.S. needs a strong man like Trump to restore order.

RASCOE: The House passed the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act in reaction to unrest on campuses. The vote was 320-91 with 70 Democrats and 21 Republicans voting against it. It's not a sure bet in the Senate, though, right?

LIASSON: Not a sure bet. There are some conservatives who worry that this law could be used against Christians who teach that Jews killed Jesus. And Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Thursday that there are objections to this on both sides, and he's going to look for the best way to move forward. But clearly, Congress and Democrats have an interest in condemning antisemitism.

RASCOE: So what are you watching this week as we hit the seven-month point in this war?

LIASSON: Right. Well, on Tuesday, President Biden is going to give a speech about antisemitism at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, so I'm watching that. Meanwhile, he and the secretary of state are trying to work on a cease-fire deal. Politically, Biden needs the war in Gaza to end as soon as possible. He's been pressuring Bibi Netanyahu not to conduct a land invasion of Rafah, but it doesn't seem the president has a lot of leverage there. Netanyahu says he's going to go ahead, no matter what.

And then, later on, I'm watching for commencement addresses. President Biden is going to give a commencement address at Morehouse College on May 19. Will that be disrupted by protests?

And then later in the summer, the Democrats are holding their convention in Chicago, which, of course, will cause many people to write stories about how in 1968, the Democratic Convention in Chicago was disrupted by anti-Vietnam War protests. And this is something that is a problem for Democrats. In 1968, the majority of public opinion had turned against the Vietnam War by the time of the convention, but then there was a backlash as voters looked at the violence in Chicago, and they ended up electing Richard Nixon.

RASCOE: On the current campaign, the president is heading to Wisconsin for an event on the economy. The vice president was just in Florida, where restrictions on abortion went into effect this past week.

LIASSON: That's right. The abortion issue is an issue that Democrats hope is as powerful for them as the border and campus chaos are for Republicans. And that Florida bill, which bans abortion after six weeks - that's before most women know they're pregnant - was the brainchild of Ron DeSantis, the governor, when he was running for president in the Republican primary and wanted to appeal to the conservative base of the party. But there's been a backlash against that. Even Donald Trump has criticized that law for being too extreme.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.