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In GOP attacks on Black Lives Matter, political peril for Democrats

Republicans are using the movement to stoke public concern about law and order issues, and to portray Democrats as soft on crime and anti-police.

Leading Republicans are increasingly looking to use the Black Lives Matter movement to stoke public concern about issues of law and order, and portray Democrats and the Obama administration as soft on crime and anti-police. The strategy, which recalls the racially charged political attacks during the high-crime years of the '70s and '80s, could put Hillary Clinton and other liberals in an awkward position, or worse, as next year’s elections approach.

The brutal killing last week of a Texas police officer is adding fuel to the fire. Sheriff’s Deputy Darren Goforth was shot 15 times at close range at a gas station outside Houston Friday, according to a prosecutor in the case.

“In the last six years under President Obama, we’ve seen a rise in anti-police rhetoric,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who is running for president, wrote in an op-ed published Wednesday on a conservative website. Walker pointed to "demonstrations and chants where people describe police as ‘pigs’ and call for them to be ‘fried like bacon,'" adding: "This inflammatory and disgusting rhetoric has real consequences for the safety of officers who put their lives on the line for us and hampers their ability to serve the communities that need their help.”

RELATED: Nikki Haley on Black Lives Matter: You can't 'yell and scream' to bring change

Walker was referring to a small group of protesters in Minnesota last weekend who were filmed chanting “pigs in a blanket. Fry’em like bacon,” while holding a Black Lives Matter banner. Video of the incident has gone viral on right-wing blogs and news sites.

That sort of extreme rhetoric has been rare among activists challenging law enforcement’s often harsh treatment of minorities. Last week, the movement offered a detailed set of policy recommendations, many of which enjoy widespread support, including requiring police to wear body cameras and better police training. In fact, police shootings are down this year by 17% compared to 2014, Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said on Fox News Wednesday.

"Cops across this country are feeling the assault.”'

Still, it has been enough to help conservatives paint the movement as violent, racially divisive and anti-law-enforcement—and at times to try to drag in President Obama, too, by suggesting that his administration’s response to urban unrest over the last year has increased the danger to police.

"Cops across this country are feeling the assault,” Sen. Ted Cruz said Monday on the campaign trail in New Hampshire. “They're feeling the assault from the president, from the top on down as we see. Whether it's in Ferguson or Baltimore, the response of senior officials of the President, of the Attorney General, is to vilify law enforcement. That is fundamentally wrong, and it is endangering the safety and security of us all." Ferguson, Missouri, experienced weeks of racially tinged protests after the police shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man.

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has said concerns about aggressive policing prevented cops from stopping recent unrest.

“That first night in Baltimore, they allowed that city to be destroyed,” the controversial businessman told a Republican group last week. “They set it back 35 years in one night because the police weren’t allowed to protect people. We need law and order!” Baltimore saw unrest and riots after the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died while in police custody. Six Baltimore cops have been charged in connection with Gray's death.

RELATED: Cruz lays blame on Obama for inciting killing of Texas deputy

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has been mentioned as a potential vice presidential candidate on a Republican ticket, took direct aim at Black Lives Matter in a major speech Wednesday at Washington, D.C.’s National Press Club, portraying the movement as hurting the very people it claims to speak for.

“Most of the people killed or injured in the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore were black,” Haley said. “Most of the small businesses or social service institutions that were destroyed and looted in Ferguson and Baltimore were either black owned or served heavily black populations. Most of the people who now live in terror because local police are too intimidated to do their jobs are black. Black lives do matter, and they have been disgracefully jeopardized by the movement that has laid waste to Ferguson and Baltimore.”

Sen. Rand Paul, another presidential candidate, also has gone after the group, telling Fox News last week: "I think they should change their name, maybe -- if they were All Lives Matter, or Innocent Lives Matter."

Some commentators on the right have taken to calling Black Lives Matter a “hate group.” After charges were announced against Goforth’s alleged killer, Laura Ingraham, an influential conservative commentator, tweeted: “Has the #BlackLiesMatter ppl come out in his defense yet?”

“I think they should change their name, maybe – if they were All Lives Matter, or Innocent Lives Matter.”'

The growing attacks could present political peril for Democratic candidates. On the one hand, they’re likely to come under increasing pressure to condemn examples of anti-police rhetoric, no matter how isolated they may be. But if they appear disrespectful to Black Lives Matter activists or dismissive of their concerns, they could alienate at least some of the African-American voters who make up an ever more crucial piece of the party’s base.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders angered Black Lives Matter protesters at an event this summer when he portrayed tackling economic inequality as the real answer to their concerns, seeming to downplay the role of simple racial prejudice. Clinton last month held a short, tense meeting with Black Lives Matter activists, but earlier this year gave a detailed and well-received policy speech on criminal justice reform. In a sign of how the party has sought to court favor with the movement, the Democratic National Committee last week passed a resolution declaring itself in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.

RELATED: Poor police response exacerbated Ferguson unrest, DOJ report finds

For progressives, the ultimate nightmare scenario would be even a partial return to the political climate of the 1970s and '80s, when voters’ fears about violent crime consistently ranked near the top of their concerns, and when law-and-order Republicans used the issue as a cudgel to beat liberal Democrats, who they portrayed as wanting to coddle criminals. George H. W. Bush’s infamous “Willie Horton” ad, attacking Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, his rival in the 1988 presidential race, was among the most effective political ads of all time. Four years later, Bill Clinton signaled that he was a different kind of Democrat by personally returning to Arkansas from the campaign trail to order the execution of a mentally ill convicted killer.

That environment isn’t likely to return soon. In 1980, there were 10.2 murders for every 100,000 people, compared to just 4.5 in 2013. The decline has dramatically lowered the salience of law and order issues in politics, and has even led to an emerging bipartisan consensus about the need for a less punitive approach to criminal justice.

But Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, Kansas City, New Orleans, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Milwaukee all have seen upticks in their murder rates this year, the latter three by over 50%. It’s too soon to say whether the numbers herald a longer-term trend, but if they do, they could add fuel to the conservative attacks.