We are out. Yesterday the last C-17 left Kabul airport. President’s Biden’s deadline has passed and thankfully, without another bombing or serious incident. Still, the political impact of these past weeks has no deadline in sight.
That’s where we begin, before turning to the politics of the politics surrounding the fallout from the withdrawal.
Then, as we continue to hone in on big state races, for our tidbit this week, our focus is on the governor’s race in Virginia where former governor Terry McAuliffe is leading in the latest polls, but that doesn’t mean he’s taking time off from the trail just yet.
Finally, a note for all you loyal Hacks On Tap podcast listeners: we’ll be on vacation this week, so, in the words of the Seinfeld Soup Nazi “no podcast for you!” But fear not, we will be back in one week. But meanwhile, while Axelrod might need some rest, there’s no rest for the weary here on the newsletter team.
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(cover photo credit Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
The Political Fallout from Afghanistan Ain’t Stopping Anytime Soon
Joe Biden might have called Afghanistan an “endless war,” but jetting away from the war zone is no guarantee that we’ve heard the last of Afghanistan. In fact, the political battles waging of Afghanistan and particularly Biden’s handling of the final exit are anything but over. They may be endless too. Going forward, there is really no easy political path for Biden. His best chance is to try to move the debate away from Afghanistan and on to domestic politics. That’s no bowl of cherries either, but at this point anything that gets the administration out of the Afghan disaster media vise is a step forward.
Whether it works or not will take time to discover. One big challenge the White House will have in trying to move the debate back to domestic politics is pulling that off successfully relies at least partially on, wait for it, help from the Taliban. The big question is now is will the Taliban’s new Dale Carnegie graduates over at Kabul High Command keep their reassuring promises, put away their bloody scimitars, slow down the whole race to the 7th Century bit and try to clean up their act enough to attract a large pile of Western aid/behavior bribe money to prop up their fast-collapsing economy? (And maybe a little American intel help on ISIS-K…). Or will they go back to playing the nasty old hits? The former scenario is far, far better for Biden. But it is far from certain. So the pain for the President continues. I don't see any easy path for him now. Gibbsy, what do you think?
I think much like the slog of the last 20 years, I would say the next few months are likely to be a continuation of that. I still maintain that most polling will show leaving Afghanistan is a popular decision, even if how we have left Afghanistan was chaotic at best and left many conflicted over the past few weeks. Even the most optimistic polling shows that a majority disapprove of the way President Biden has handled Afghanistan, even as they support ending our military commitment. Like you, I think we're in for this to be a fairly decent part of the Fall narrative, even if it's not the only story in town as it has been for the past nearly three weeks.
Now that the military is out, the analysis of how we got into this situation will become more of a focus. Questions about the planning process and the execution; questions about whether Biden holds anybody on his team responsible for these miscalculations. So, the calm will be our military out of harm's way, but the storm will be all of those that said, “There'll be time for analysis once the military is out,” as that will now take center stage. So, this is just going to be on a loop for the Biden administration for the foreseeable future. The media will revisit it as a barometer for one of Biden’s big decisions in a way that other issues are not focused on through that lens. One of the big questions around a new Taliban government that both craves and needs international support to prop up an economy based almost entirely on foreign aid: does that change their behavior at all? So, I think a lot of questions, none of which are going away.
And don’t underestimate the mental and physical fatigue much of this White House has dealt with over the past two plus weeks. To be clear, nothing like what the soldiers in the country have experienced, but August usually means slower times in Washington and a chance to recharge and reset for a very, very busy and high stakes Fall. That has definitely not been the case.
Yet, another looming problem for Biden is we may find out that the new kinder Taliban is happy to take Yuan instead of US dollars, adding a geopolitical problem to the region as we lose influence and China gains power.
On a more somber note, President Biden’s trip to Dover Air Force Base to pay his respects to the 13 US troops who paid the ultimate sacrifice last week reminded me of the trip I made with President Obama after an explosion killed 15 service members and three Drug Enforcement Administration agents in 2009.
We made a late-night trip to Dover and for three to four hours President Obama took part in each dignified transfer. It is a sad and solemn experience to say the least. Coming face to face with the loved ones of a fallen soldier bring the pains and sacrifices of war front and center for a Commander in Chief. The hulking aircraft full of flag-draped cases is an image and a feeling that never leaves you. I remember at the end of this ceremony, we all got back on the helicopter at Dover Air Force Base to fly back to the White House and the President thanked the US Navy aide for arranging the trip and then no one said a word for the next 45 minutes as we flew to the South Lawn.
Reading the biographies of the brave young men and women we lost reminds us all how excellent they were and the amazing, selfless service they provided to our country to keep us safe. We all owe them a debt of gratitude for their bravery and sacrifice.
Couldn’t agree more. They were all so young. And so many stories of those soldiers helping Afghans and Americans evacuate and the selfless nature of their devoted service.
The Politics of the Politics of Afghanistan
On much more of a Hacks note, let's go to the politics of the politics of all this. I've always noticed, maybe it's a Republican confirmation bubble thing, that the Democrats sure have a gift for going from hopelessly cocky to frantic pearl clutching at the speed of light. You can already see process stories now about worried Democrats, the bungling of Biden's presidency, we’re doomed, etc. The Democratic Party was already rightfully concerned about the midterms before all this happened. Will they follow their usual pattern and start eating their young?
I would start Murphy by saying that in a democracy as robust as America, we ought to have at least one political party that practices self-reflection. I do anticipate that there will be a decent amount of looking back. This White House had executed its plays very well up to this point. But, as we've talked about a lot, success in politics breeds success, and, I think you've made the point more than any that, some failure in Afghanistan withdrawal may actually bring Democrats closer together in their march now to get something done this Fall domestically. I'm still not at all convinced that Afghanistan is in and of itself an issue that will drive or determine many votes in November 2022. The polling sure shows the number of people who believe this is the number one issue is incredibly small. It’s far more important that the economy is doing well, and that COVID is under some sort of control so the key for the administration, as you said, will be getting back to an agenda that focuses on that, even as the world continues to get more complicated (the North Koreans restarting a reactor, natural disasters like Hurricane Ida, etc.) When Presidents are in control of the agenda and in control of events, it's easy to keep people marching in the same direction. It’s when things feel out of control that pearl clutching and bedwetting is at its greatest in our party. And no time like the present to focus on the legislative possibilities of September and beyond.
I so would love to be a fly on the wall in the Democratic room where they're looking at all this, fretting over Biden’s sinking poll numbers and panicking a bit (maybe prematurely I grant you) and saying, “Well, Joe's gonna be a one-term President for sure now whether he likes it or not. Does anybody think Kamala can save the franchise afterward in a general election?” And then the long, deadly silence in the room punctured only by the noise of whiskey bottles being despondently opened. Then, the next question. “So, what do we do?” My early guess is a few months more of bad polling numbers for the POTUS and there will be more interest in a classic Kennedy versus Carter fractious Democratic presidential primary in 2024. But lest we Republicans get too smug. I'm sure the emperor of Mar-a-Lago is watching all this from his orange throne thinking more and more about running again because he smells weakness on the Democratic side. God Help us.
Murphy, there isn't a real, even half-experienced Democratic strategist that is going to sit in a meeting based on the events of the last three weeks and say Joe Biden is going to only be a one term president.
No, but I'm banking on the natural tendency to panic on the Democratic side, but we'll see.
All Eyes on Hurricane Ida
Obviously, the pictures and the news reports make you feel for the people of Louisiana dealing with this all over again. It’s too soon to really dig into the politics while people continue to be rescued and in the process of hopefully getting their power back, but the politics of natural disasters tend to be, if FEMA runs well, you can get a slight bump broadly. (A competent response would help a President who ran on competence, but got that damaged in the events of Afghanistan.) The real politics of natural disasters like this are the down side of things not working well, or should we say, not doing a “heck of a job, Brownie.” So, in a state already quite frankly ravaged by COVID, astute political observers will be watching to make sure that the mechanism of government response, mostly via FEMA, works well over the course of the next 48 to 96 hours.
Let's hope that's the case because people are going to need help. I don't know how the politics will turn out, but I know the media will always be more interested in finding the faults versus the successes. And again, if there is trouble it’ll – fairly or not – all go flying back towards Biden. I think the bottom line here is that the White House really, really, really needs to find somewhere and somehow on a big, flashy topic to hit a political triple or a homerun. He needs to get back in the groove and realign things rather than just being in a punching bag situation for the next week months. They’ve got to bust a move. (That’s some hip-hop language for all of our hipper, younger readers.)
Yes, you're the Flavor Flav of the Hacks newsletter. I can see the clock around your neck from here!
I was actually thinking Sir Mix-a-Lot, who has always been my idol.
So we had the New York mayor's race and the Ohio and Texas special elections for Congress, and now the media thermometer is going to shift its temperature toward two even bigger races: the upcoming California recall, which we're going to focus on the next issue, and the Virginia governor's race, which, unlike many states, is held this year.
In the Old Dominion, Democrats, who had been in a minor panic are breathing a little easier about the Virginia governor's race which we be pointed to as a bellwether for Biden's popularity (particularly if media expectations are upset). A new poll shows Terry McAuliffe – making his comeback bid having been governor from 2014 to 2018 – getting to a respectable 9 point lead in the poll. His opponent, wealthy Republican venture capitalist Glenn Younkin is self-funding his campaign and Democrats are nervous. Predictably, Trump is an anchor on Youngkin in the vital Virginia suburbs. Youngkin, fearing the GOP base, has stumbled over Trump and his overall message is foggy. But he still remains in striking distance and Republicans plan an all-out effort.
McAuliffe will breathe ever so slightly easier, but continue to work as hard as he can, remembering that in his last election, the polling also had him up comfortably by double digits and he ended up winning in a much closer race by less than 3 points. Also, the nervousness of any Democrat when they see a poll with the lead opening up like this is that the people you want and need to get out to vote don't feel as intense about doing it because they figure that the election is in hand. Pure danger in that. Obviously, this one has a while to go. And my hunch is, that you'll hear new versions of the stump speech from former Governor McAuliffe that says don't watch the polls, get yourself and your friends out to vote. We've both worked in enough campaigns to know that public polls don't determine the winners, especially when there’s a self-funder in the race buying lots of tv ads.
Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I think former Governor McAuliffe ought to remain extremely paranoid because while the voters in November 2022 may not be as focused on the controversy over Afghanistan, the election in Virginia is just over 60 days away.
Even sooner is the CA recall election. We’ll talk about that in Friday’s edition.
We’ll see you then.
Murphy and Gibbs