A very grim day in Afghanistan, with two suicide bombings outside of the Kabul airport killing at least 13 US service members and scores of Afghan civilians – making this final countdown towards President Biden’s August 31st withdrawal deadline even more difficult for him politically.
So, we start with Afghanistan before turning back to the House where, if you thought August was bumpy, just wait until September with a bottleneck of an agenda on the horizon. Speaker Pelosi will continue to work her political magic, especially when President Biden needs all the political help he can get.
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(cover photo credit: Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
We begin with the news out of Afghanistan…
The Final Days of the Withdrawal Countdown Keep Getting Worse
My first thought about the politics of Afghanistan is Republicans need to be careful. This is a time to mourn and respect the brave service members who just gave their lives in Kabul. Over 100,000 people have been miraculously airlifted out by the U.S. and our allies; a tremendously worthy accomplishment. Yesterday’s tragic loss was part of the heroic price paid to save so many of those lives. Republican politicians trying to lay direct blame on President Biden for these deaths are way out of line. It’s a cheap shot and should be condemned. ISIS suicide bombs are not something you can magically wave away in a combat zone like Afghanistan. I’ve been a firm critic of how the Biden administration has bungled many aspects of the Kabul end game, but there is no scenario – and no alternative President – where this could not have happened. Republicans, many of whom have a shameful record of enabling the sins and crimes of Donald Trump, should stop rushing to TV cameras to try to make cheap political points from this tragedy. It insults the country.
Finally, the politics of all this for Biden – in my view – are pretty much about the next week, and then, the next year. There is a grave risk of more attacks as the August 31 deadline approaches and, like yesterday’s bombings, much of it is out of Biden’s control. That is a nightmare for any White House. Their only option is to support our highly capable military for the next four days. Beyond that, they need to prepare for the political cost of “owning” Afghanistan for the next year. They’ll be blamed, sometimes fairly and sometimes not, for any re-energizing of terror organization based in Afghanistan. The domestic situation there – with a fast collapsing economy, a fragmented Taliban and no shortage of American rivals and bad actors vying for influence – will most likely crumble into a grim humanitarian disaster. The best politics for Biden is to regain the initiative over the next few months with a combination of strong American leadership and new strategic moves to take back the initiative in the region and, in my view, spotlight some new National Security faces in the administration. (Hint; time to go bipartisan/old pro.) The bottom line is, the White House must understand there is no easy “change the channel” strategy for Afghanistan. It’s going to be a big part of their political life for years, whether they like it or not. In politics, the best move is always offense; what is the new plan, who is the new team, and why is it better?
It was indeed a sad and tragic day in Kabul. The terrible news of losing more of our brave service members and scores of Afghan civilians to terrorists stops you in your tracks. Our military continues to do the heroic work of getting as many people as they can out of harm's way in Afghanistan, and we are all praying for their safety over the next four days. Agree with you, Mike, that there are two views here: Between right now and the end of August, and then the longer-term of what happens in Afghanistan and the region will matter the most to the Biden Administration. Yesterday showed us all a preview of what’s likely to come with factions fighting each other again and Afghan citizens caught in the middle. As I’ve said for a while, the pictures and stories there aren’t likely to get better anytime soon and that will be something this Administration will have to grapple with for several more years.
It has been a long two weeks for this Administration, and the focus on this withdrawal will certainly extend into next week as the dominant storyline.
I think we’ll hear a lot of the new post-Dale Carnegie Taliban 2.0. It’ll be the old media saw we heard during the twilight of the Cold War about the latest Soviet Boss having a secret love of American Jazz. (After all, nothing relaxes a hard-working senior Comrade after a long day of inspecting Gulags than a little quality time with a Miles Davis record.)
I think it is true the Taliban elite that the administration has been dealing with – since Donald Trump initially surrendered in Afghanistan - does crave foreign aid money and will pursue the dollop of international respectability it will require. But the open question is, who really runs the Taliban on the ground? That is less clear. With the Afghan economy in complete collapse, the Taliban faces tough domestic politics of its own: internal rivalries; tribal and ethnic geographies; a young population that has tasted secular freedoms, particularly in the cities; and, most pressing - ruthless rivals to their ideological right who don’t think the Taliban’s ruling Leadership is moving to the 7th Century nearly fast enough. The Afghan civil war is forty years old, and likely to now become even less stable; this is going to be one very rough brief for the White House to contend with.
As a Member of the senior White House staff, I tended to sleep with my cell phone next to me because, even in the best of times, I would get calls two or three times a week from the White House Situation Room at 2:00 in the morning about something that's happened domestically or overseas. There's always a lot of anxiety and trepidation when that phone rings at two or three in the morning because it's almost never good news. And that will be even heightened, as Murphy says, as we go into the countdown here to the withdrawal. Every moment closer to August 31st brings with it the chances for even more deadly attacks, leading to more of those Sit Room calls from the White House. The next 96 hours will be tense for this White House. I know the feeling they're feeling right now.
The Long Fall Ahead for Speaker Pelosi
We learned a lot this week domestically, too. I've said a couple of times that it's going to be an extraordinarily long fall. First and foremost, for all of the drama and the “deal making” that happened over the course of this week that allowed Nancy Pelosi to move this process forward, this is going to look like an extraordinarily easy lift given what is in front of Democrats writ large, but particularly in the House in September. Because, in reality, there wasn't really much Pelosi had to give up to make a deal this week. She essentially said, we're going to vote on infrastructure and transportation programs before they expire four days later. The whole thing got put on ice for 12 hours while they figured this out. But, that's going to look like nothing because now the real work begins in fleshing out what comes underneath this $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation deal. The not so surprising headline is that, in the end, it won't be $3.5 trillion.
So there's a real collision in a lot of different ways in what's coming. Even the “deal” that Pelosi made, in reality, if the progressives decide they're not moving forward with the bipartisan infrastructure from the Senate then that bill won’t move forward. Bottom line, there's a lot of heavy lifting to come. If you think about the challenge coming at the end of September, you're going to have raising the debt ceiling, funding government for the next fiscal year, the Senate infrastructure bill, and budget reconciliation, all happening, essentially simultaneously. And, except for maybe a very few House GOP votes on the Senate infrastructure, all that's going to have to be done with Democrats only. I would say to Democrats watching this process, there's a lot that's going to happen. It reminds me a bit of the nuts and bolts of healthcare, and the key to that was to focus on the end game and not to get too stuck on the highs and lows of each and every day.
I agree, the moderate deal was a fig leaf, so they could get the political cover they think they need, which is the best you're going to get when you're a Democratic moderate outnumbered 9 to about 3,000 in the Democratic House caucus. Now, the big question for the Speaker is, how berserk will the House liberals go when the Senators Manchin and Sinema chop the proposed $3.5 trillion proposal down to size in the Senate? That’s the next move to watch. Pelosi may have the same stand off she had with the moderates, but this time the rebels won’t be 9 Members but 40 to 80. So, as you say, the high drama of August was only a rehearsal. All that said, the biggest whip Pelosi now has is Afghanistan. Democrats know Biden is in political trouble. The urge by progressive hard cases to totally screw up the infrastructure bill (and screw Joe Biden) in a fit of pique over a smaller - yet still massive - liberal spending bill will probably melt away in the end.
If Democrats let the next six weeks of message become, "Should it be $3.5 trillion, $3.2 trillion, $2.8 trillion, or $2.5 trillion?" then we’ll do a tremendous disservice to this effort short and long-term in not just what it will take to win the battle on the floor of the House, but ultimately winning the larger political war in the 2022 elections. This has got to be about what's in the legislation, why Democrats are doing this, how they're doing it – meaning raising taxes on people who should be paying their fair share. I get worried right now because the coverage reminds me a bit of healthcare. The polling at the end of the healthcare reform effort showed very few people understood what was in healthcare reform, because, quite frankly, the coverage of healthcare was about the politics of healthcare reform, not what you would want people to focus on in healthcare. It’s part of the reason why it took nearly a decade for Obamacare to become a net positive, and very popular.
Yeah, I agree with that, and every time the debate goes to process you're losing, and the Democrats have an irrational obsession with wanting to endlessly debate process. I think they too often seem to want favorable New York Times editorials about thoughtful governance, rather than kitchen table issues they can win elections with. And have no doubt, the Republicans will gleefully pound into people’s heads about this bill -- whether it's $2 trillion or $3.5 trillion -- that it’s the biggest left wing, tax raising and crazy liberal spending orgy in American history.
A campaign 2022 note: Football legend Herschel Walker is running for Senate in Georgia. We’ll be watching this one; initial polls show a tight race. But behind the scenes, GOP operatives are worried. They know Walker is exactly the kind of untested rookie candidate that could easily blow up on the launch pad. Think of him as 240 pounds of rocket fuel; he’ll either go into orbit and become Georgia’s next Senator, or… there’ll be a fireball you can see for miles. It’s very hard, even for people who have excelled in other very difficult fields, to learn the candidate business on the fly in a high profile, high stakes statewide race. Some, like my friend Arnold Schwarzenegger, have pulled it off with aplomb. But being the world’s top box office draw is better preparation for a career in politics than just about anything else; you move from one kind of theater to another. We’ll be keeping an eye on the Georgia race; both with a space telescope and a fire blanket.
One story I thought would get a lot more play is the above on a federal judge’s ruling holding accountable 9 Trump lawyers for their efforts to deceive people and the court’s about the 2020 election. Well worth the read if you haven’t seen it already. I hope that as we start to focus more intently on 2022 that stories like this serve as reminders for lawyers and others that baseless claims won’t go unpunished. And, Murphy, because it’s Friday and I am feeling generous, a shout out to your home state of Michigan! There were quite a few good soldiers, many in the GOP, who voted for impeachment, who wouldn’t be intimidated to capitulate to Team Trump and declare widespread fraud had happened without any evidence. We need more of those types in the arena if we are ever going to push back on this narrative. I’m not naïve. I know it will take a long, long time.
We’ll be back next week with more tidbits and the latest politics from Afghanistan to DC. Have a safe weekend and keep all those in harm’s way protecting our nation in your thoughts.
Murphy and Gibbs