If nothing else for media watchers there’s a fascinating dynamic developing over the last day or so in trying to define the US exit from Afghanistan. It’s not a new dynamic. In fact, it’s one I first saw a quarter century ago when DC’s establishment press got really, really upset that not only Bill Clinton but more importantly most of the country didn’t agree with their take on impeachment in 1998. Official DC was baffled when Democrats actually managed to pick up a few seats in the 1998 midterm that was entirely about impeachment. The specifics of the case are of course pretty radically different. But the dynamic of establishment DC press escalation is not. Politico’s morning newsletter this morning captures the dynamic. It starts quoting David Axelrod making clear that Biden messed up and has to admit he messed up but then notes that Biden didn’t get the message and said he had made the right decision. A sort of primal scream of “WTF, JOE BIDEN?!?!?!!?!” virtually bleeds through the copy.
I’m still where I was last week. Withdrawing from Afghanistan could have been done better, and it should have been done a long time ago by any of the past three presidents before Biden. But better now than later. And it was never going to be pretty.
As I’ve made clear repeatedly, it’s not like this is a big win for Biden, at least in the near term. American public opinion is never going to like seeing the people we spent twenty years and a trillion dollars fighting getting comfy in the presidential palace after the US-backed President hopped the first plane out of Kabul. That stings no matter what the backstory. But there’s also little question that the very strong consensus among establishment DC press opinion-makers is not in line with the mood or opinion of most of the country.
The MAGA crowd is no doubt delighted to see Biden perceived as failing at something, never mind that the MAGA-god himself left his own mess in Afghanistan. See, for example, Republicans delete webpage celebrating Trump’s deal with Taliban and Trump’s deal with the Taliban set the stage for the Afghan collapse.
However, I think the rest of the nation will shove Afghanistan aside relatively quickly once the nation’s schools open for fall for children and the Delta variant. We’re in for a rough winter. By politicizing masks and vaccines with their usual over-the-top screeching rhetoric, Republicans are gambling with the lives of children, and others. I don’t see them winning. If parents find themselves stuck back with virtual school, or worse — their children on ventilators — Afghanistan will not be a big concern.
I’m seeing a lot of commentary saying that Kabul 2021 is not Saigon 1975, and of course it isn’t, even though there are a damn lot of parallels. But one comment I keep reading is that poor Gerald Ford paid a terrible political price for Saigon. That’s not what I remember, and I remember the 1976 presidential election pretty darn well. Washington may still have been roiling over Saigon in 1976, but I don’t recall people beyond the Beltway being too wrapped up in it. Everyone wanted to forget about Vietnam. Frankly, had the Democrats not nominated a white southern evangelical, I bet Ford would have won another term. Carter won by only 2 percentage points over Ford, and he swept the Deep South (except for Virginia) as no Democrat has done since.
Many of the Kabul-is-not-Saigon coverage also insists that the U.S. did a much better job of evacuating vulnerable Vietnamese in 1975. Then why do I remember the boat people?
Anyway — it’s still possible Democrats will pay a price for Kabul, but I’m guessing not that much. We’ll see.
So what will drive the 2022 elections? If Democrats are worried about Kabul, they had damn well better pass both infrastructure bills. Nancy Pelosi is now engaged in an epic struggle with the Nine Moderate Democrats to accomplish this. They had also damn well pass a voting rights bill that blocks political gerrymandering, at least. That won’t be easy.
But Republicans could still screw the pooch. GOP anti-mask nonsense is stirring a backclash. We probably will still be fighting about covid and masks and vaccines and schools through the next few months.It’s too soon to say what’s going to shape the 2022 elections, but I don’t believe Afghanistan will be the most critical issue.