So, this newsletter is all about leverage. Leverage over foreign policy, leverage over the fate of the Biden domestic agenda, and some pretty amazing leverage some feisty political consultants used in the California recall. More on that after the jump.
But we begin with the continued fallout over what continues to be a fiasco for the Biden world in Afghanistan. What should or shouldn’t he do next? That’s where we begin…
(cover image credit: Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images News)
Has Biden Boxed Himself In Over Afghanistan?
Gibbs, riddle me this. Why is President Biden digging in so aggressively on Afghanistan? I know he only wants to debate the big question of stay or go, but it is the fiasco on the ground right now that is killing him politically. He's not letting the energy out of that problem by taking full blame for the lack of preparation, the lack of coordination with allies and all the other tactical screw-ups surrounding the debacle right now in Afghanistan. He wants to fight the big picture and I understand why. But he's pretending the execution of this exit mess on his watch is irrelevant and that it was going to happen any way so it’s no big deal. He did it in the Stephanopoulos interview. He did it in his speech. And the result is he’s getting jeered and booed by even his own party. Is this a really bad strategy or is it not about strategy; it’s just Joe Biden being stubborn (and driving his staff completely nuts)?
I think it's probably some level of each of those things, Murphy. One, I think he does believe in his soul, and has for the last 12 years that the idea that we could “nation build” in Afghanistan was an utter fantasy; that the commanders would endlessly lobby to continue the war at stepped up levels for as far as the eye could see—always predicating it on the idea that things would get better in a year or so. And I think he absolutely wanted to be the person that put a stop to that.
I agree with you wholeheartedly that the politically strong case is in ending these long wars. We've seen that in poll after poll for a really long time. Getting our soldiers home from Afghanistan polled somewhere close to 70%. This White House has spent the week betting big that a lot more people wanted our troops out than are worried about how it happened and the events surrounding it (more on that in Tidbits). Though to not, as we've talked about, acknowledge what has gone wrong and take some responsibility for it seems, to be quite honestly with you, very Washington. In other words, you make a mistake and then you spend five or six days saying, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that you hadn't made a mistake, and then eventually you say, okay, yeah, we made the mistake. I think, as we talked about, he would have strengthened his overall case, if he would have acknowledged that the decision to withdraw wasn't the wrong one, it was the execution of how we withdrew. And I think that actually would have bolstered the overall case had he taken more responsibility. Our friend David Axelrod, made this argument in a great piece on CNN earlier in the week:
I think the thing he has to be careful of is, it's cover your you-know-what time in Washington and that means there's furious leaking of documents and assessments to every reporter with a cell phone, in hopes of laying down markers that the finger of blame will be pointed at them. And I agree, Murphy, the best thing that he could do to reassure the country, which I think he tried to do a little bit in the Stephanopoulos interview, is say that we'll stay there long enough to get all Americans out. But there’s no denying this was a tough week for him.
I think he has what might prove to be a terminal case of “I told you so”-itis. He was that guy for a long time saying enough is enough in Afghanistan, and this time, when at least some of the intelligence people told him there's a lot of end-game risk in leaving at high speed, his response was: “you’ve been selling that crap for years, enough we're leaving.” I think he missed a golden opportunity. If he had given a speech, or even gave one now, where he basically said, “Look, there has been a failure in Afghanistan. I'll tell you who didn't fail: the brave American troops who were asked to fight for our flag and did so with exemplary courage and sacrifice. The American taxpayers didn't fail, they were uniquely generous with the Afghan people and the cause of a free and Democratic Afghanistan. The failure was from our political class and from both parties who got us into this war, then didn't have a long term strategy, and I was part of that.” Then he should propose a commission of non-hacks—sorry, so we can't be on it—to really tear this thing open with record transparency and make a full and clear-eyed examination of our entire two decades in Afghanistan. I think Biden could have really put himself in a strong position and make what he's trying to say politically—that he's the brave truth teller—actually true. It would also surround his recent Kabul failure with a lot of other historical failures through this long war. We would learn from it as a country and Biden would benefit politically from a wider view of the whole situation; he wouldn’t be alone in the focus on Afghanistan failures. Instead, what's going to happen is, as you say, Robert, is these leaks are going to do that same thing in a half-assed way in the media, without any credit to Biden.
I've been surprised that Joe Biden – who ran as the competent, empathetic, center-left alternative to the hard edges and epic incompetence of Donald Trump – is now caught in an incompetence web all his own. I would not have predicted that. So, we'll see what happens. As bad as the current situation is, there's no guarantee the future won't be worse depending on how the Taliban decides to act. It's their behavior after we leave that’s going to tell the real story and Biden is so glued to this whole thing now that he's going to politically own whatever they choose to do. So, Biden’s political future in some ways is in the hands of the mullahs. Not a good thing for him. I'm sure the Biden folks are dying to change the channel to a new topic, like, say, the infrastructure and massive domestic spending bill. How's that for a transition?
What was lost in Afghanistan might be won in Washington?
I think were it not for the images of the past week or so, the biggest story surrounding Washington would almost certainly be the upcoming House vote next week on the budget. And we are in an epic stare down contest between Nancy Pelosi, on one side, and the nine or so House moderates, on the other, who have threatened to vote against the budget, if the infrastructure bill that passed the Senate isn't voted on first. This is sort of classic negotiation theory that the person who believes that she has the strongest hand, Nancy Pelosi, is not burning the phone lines up negotiating, is not offering to sweeten the deal, or, in some cases, is not offering a ladder out of the hole that I think the moderates have dug for themselves by drawing this deep line in the sand (now I've truly mixed our metaphors) that they're going to exercise their maximum leverage and vote no. I think the challenge for them now is, they've got to look in the mirror and decide, do they really let this thing go down by voting no? Or, if they change their minds and don't have anything to suggest they got anything for their change of heart, they've sacrificed all their leverage going forward because the Speaker will know that they are capable of being rolled very easily. So, I think the next 72 hours as the House starts to come back, they start to vote on this is going to be fascinating to watch and to see the maneuvering in any of the statements that Josh Gottheimer and other moderates send out. But Murphy, I know you've got great hope for the Democrats in a theory that centers around the fact that what was lost in Afghanistan might be won in Washington.
(Credit: Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images News)
This is a fascinating situation in the House. First, a moment to untangle all of this for our hard working readers: Speaker Pelosi made a deal, as we've discussed, with the (many) House Progressives, to link together a vote on the infrastructure bill and a vote on the big domestic (boongoggle, but I digress!) spending bill. In effect, that means if you are a moderate Democratic House Member in a dangerous district, you're going to be forced to vote for $3.5 trillion spending proposal, even if that is not the final number that the Senate process will eventually land on. The moderates – shocker – are bucking that and they're right for their own political reasons. So, these moderates are really in a box because they're paying the political price for Speaker Pelosi’s promise to the Progressives (to keep them in line on the infrastructure bill). And… there's also no guarantee that Progressives will stay in line because when the Senate is done, they're going to lower the $3.5 trillion number (hello, Senators Manchin and Sinema). Plus, they're going to add some taxes, which means more friction and trouble. So, if you're one of these moderate Democrats, you are being asked to vote for $3.5 trillion now, get on the record and get slaughtered. As you say, they're stuck. You can win a game of chicken if you're ready to die for it and that's going to be the test here: will they say no to Pelosi on vote number one and be accused of sinking infrastructure. They, of course, are pushing hard for separate votes.
Biden's political problems off of the Afghanistan fiasco in an odd way may make his hand stronger… because it gives Pelosi the argument of, “Look, our guy just hit a massive iceberg and is in real trouble. And if we don't give them some victories here we're all going to sink together.” Remember, the House midterms look tough for the D’s already and nothing clarifies the foggy minds of even a Democratic House caucus like the idea of a hanging in the morning.
Yeah and she’s chosen that largely because, as we've seen, the number of moderate representatives in a political party in Congress is dramatically smaller than those who represent the outer edges.
Yeah, they're meeting in a phone booth right now.
How Nervous Should Dems Be About the California Recall?
Murphy, the other story not getting the requisite national attention that it almost certainly deserves comes from your state: the recall in California. The ballots have been mailed and the campaign is in full swing. As a Democrat, just the public polling I've seen suggests a fairly tight race. That’s causing me and other Dems a bit of anxiety. As a result of this quirky law, the governorship of California could change hands. What do you think?
Yeah, Gavin Newsom, the Dem governor, is in real trouble. He was in trouble during the peak of COVID, but then as the disease recessed his numbers improved, not unlike other incumbent Governors around the country. And now with the disease making the awful Delta variant comeback, Newsom has seen another decline. So, there is a strong urge in the state to recall him. The question is: can we get it to 50%?
Gavin has two things going for him. The first is California is an overwhelmingly blue state (it's bluer than it was during the last recall almost 20 years ago). So, the more this race becomes partisanized, and the Gavin folks can change the focus of the electorate from punishing Newsom to fearing a wild-eyed Trump/GOP new Governor, they’ll move things back the Governor’s way.
The second thing Gavin has going for him is there is no superstar Republican candidate. There is only a splintered field. The leader in the polls, simply based on name ID, is radio talk show host, Larry Elder. Plus Caitlyn Jenner, running as a Trumpie, which killed her campaign on Day 3. The most credible Republican candidate (who I plan to vote for), is former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, but he lacks money and has become lost in the crowd. So, if there was an attractive Schwarzenegger type of candidate who could escape being ideologically painted into a Republican Trumpy corner, Gavin would be in real trouble. Theoretically, Faulconer, who was an effective mayor and a fairly moderate Republican could have been that candidate, but he’s been unable to hack his way out of the jungle of other single digit candidates.
So, my guess is that Newsom will stagger to the finish line and survive, although that is not totally certain. It is not impossible that California could wake up, particularly in a lower turnout election among Democrats, with a radio talk show host as the next Governor of California. Tune in soon!
Well Murphy, I'm glad you've now, after such a tough week for Democrats, set that off as your kicker in there. We're going to probably tell readers, if you're a Democrat, not to read this section of the newsletter above the first floor of any dwelling.
Well Gibbsy, to paraphrase John Stuart Mill, the Republicans are the stupid party, but the Democrats are the neurotic party.
Just as a reminder, and to underscore what Murphy just said, Newsom won with 62% of the vote in 2018. So, as you said, it's a far, far bluer state than it really ever has been. And I think you'll see a lot of national Democrats stream into the state over the course the next several weeks in order to both nationalize the election for Democrats, but to skew it heavily partisan in its outcome such that even if you're a Democrat and not thrilled with the way the state has been run, you don't want to turn it over to Republicans and you certainly don't want to turn it over to a Republican talk radio host.
Though if I were President Biden, I'd arrive by train since “airport” is a really, really bad word for him right now…
Finally, there is a sidebar to the California recall that is so delicious I have to mention it because every political consultant in America of either party has to enjoy this one. One of the Republican candidates is wealthy businessman John Cox who ran in the last gubernatorial election losing to Gavin Newsom. Apparently, he doesn't pay his political consulting bills, which I know you and I both believe is one of the highest crimes any politician can commit. So the plucky firm of Sandler-Innocenzi—good feisty Republicans—sued him to collect over $90,000 in unpaid bills and got a judgment from the California courts, and actually had a process server interrupt the Republican candidates’ debate to serve him:
Political consultants everywhere are enjoying that one. Way to go Sandler-Innocenzi!
I can say, Murphy, that I have never worked for a candidate that didn't pay me and I'm glad that's the case.
Legend has it, the great Republican ad maker Bob Goodman had a similar situation with Senator Malcolm Wallop, a Yale-educated businessman. Goodman created a television campaign to make him into a fake cowboy. When the Wallop campaign gave Goodman trouble over some bills after Wallop won a surprising upset, Bob Goodman allegedly threatened to fly to Wyoming and hold a press conference explaining how he rented the horses in the ads. Wallop paid later that day.
THOUGHTS FOR THE WEEKEND
Finally, heading into the weekend, take a look at some recent Reuters’ polling around Joe Biden’s approval rating.
If you look back at our initial Afghanistan dialogue in this newsletter, the politics of Afghanistan have been between the huge popularity of ending this 20-year commitment and getting our troops and others out versus an execution disaster in the actual withdraw. I don't know if this poll is an outlier, or the first of a series of proof points. My guess is that we will see a lot more released over the weekend. And we'll get a sense of whether a fairly popular issue has become less popular with the pictures on TV, or more likely, as I alluded to at the beginning of the week, whether ending forever wars has become more of a partisan issue rather than something many supported. Something really worth watching because, to Murphy's point, how Biden emerges from this politically is going to be important for far longer than just the past week.
Yeah, as Gibbs and I both know, next week's poll numbers are about last week's news and my guess is Biden's in for a dip. He already had one, beginning from the Delta variant comeback. Because the buck does stop with the President. So, my guess is the White House senior staff meeting, if it hasn't already, is beginning with the savvy chief saying, “Hey, are we winning in domestic politics right now?” Glum looks all around. “Are we winning foreign policy right now?” Glum looks all around. So, “What the f*** are we going to do to change that?” And these polls are oxygen to that concern and it's the right concern to have if you’re in Biden world.
Maybe the Biden camp will use the weekend to figure that all out!
Until then, we’ll see you back here next Tuesday. Thanks for reading.
Murphy and Gibbs