You would think after five years of the Republican standard-bearer telling anyone who will listen that the United States is "stupid" and that "the whole world is laughing at us" while kissing up to dictators and insulting U.S. allies, that members of the GOP would now be embarrassed to fall back on their old playbook of calling Democrats unpatriotic and soft of defense. But as we know, they are shameless so that isn't something that would stop them.
As it stands, after a few weeks of confusion and disarray (which I wrote about here) — not really sure if their supporters' adoration for that gorgeous hunk Vladimir Putin was so deeply felt that they would support the invasion of Ukraine — GOP leadership has mostly come around to the idea that Russia probably shouldn't be ruthlessly murdering massive numbers of civilians. Being the timorous followers these leaders really are, they couldn't just take a moral and principled stand at the outset, particularly since the leader of the party, Donald Trump, was out there saying that Putin was a genius and very savvy for just going in and taking the prime property he coveted. (Perhaps it reminded him of the good old days when he would take elderly widow's land under eminent domain to build parking lots for his casinos.) But they needn't have worried too much. The muscle memory of right-wing anti-communism is still viable in the GOP's body politic.
A majority of Republican voters easily relinquished their love for the Russian president without really even knowing why. To GOP leadership's relief, they found they were free to engage in bellicose denunciations of Putin without fear of offending their followers. Even Trump has moderated his support for his good buddy Vlad, although he's so used to giving him props that they just slip out anyway. He told Fox News' Jeanine Pirro this week:
You say, what's the purpose of this? They had a country. You could see it was a country where there was a lot of love and we're doing it because, you know, somebody wants to make his country larger or he wants to put it back the way it was when actually it didn't work very well.
There was just so much love in the old Soviet Union and "somebody" just wanted to make his country larger and put it back the way it was. What's the problem?
Although Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., appeared on "Meet the Press" on Sunday claiming that there were only a few such "lonely voices," there are still some pretty influential people making the case for Putin:
Nonetheless, Republicans have settled back into their comfortable groove of calling Democrats a bunch of weak sisters who don't know how to defend the country or lead the world. If there's one thing they can all agree on, it's that.
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Former Republican ad man Rick Wilson, one of the most brutal of all of them, sounded the alarm about how that's going to play out as we launch into the midterm election season. He wrote in the Washington Post that it won't be pretty:
[The GOP] wants to play the most beloved game in the GOP playbook: that the Democrats are weak on defense. In my decades as a GOP ad maker and strategist, I made some pretty notorious ads about it. And I can tell you they work.
Democrats too often miss the optics and politics of foreign policy, hoping good choices will outweigh the dark, emotional games Republicans like to play when it comes to national security. Republicans specialize at turning Democratic successes overseas into disasters. It's a slow-burn strategy designed to trigger an outrage culture that doesn't stop at the water's edge. GOP leaders don't care about reality; their audience doesn't care about the truth, and their political media apparatus always stays on message.
Donald Trump bungled the 2020 negotiations ending the war in Afghanistan, freeing the Taliban at scale and setting a date certain for U.S. withdrawal. When Biden stuck with that commitment to exit, Republicans leveraged the inevitable chaos in Kabul into a cataclysmic political fable; if only the weak Democrats had held on for another year, victory was ensured.
Similarly, the terrorist attack on the Benghazi facilities in 2012 was another faux scandal-in-a-box because it gave Republicans — me included — a populist tale to be weaponized, embedded in the right's mythos and deployed repeatedly. I distinctly recall being in a focus group that year and watching the pollster tease from participants how Benghazi could be used to offset the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden under Barack Obama and transformed into a political millstone for Hillary Clinton.
Recall that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy helped blow his chance to become Speaker of the House when he went on TV and admitted the GOP's plan to exploit Benghazi for political gain:
"Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she's untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought."
And think about John Kerry, a decorated war hero who was painted as a cowardly liar who faked his record. The GOP conventioneers all wore purple band-aids on their faces to mock him. Wilson lays out exactly how Republicans are going to do the same with Ukraine:
[T]he GOP will soon try to flank Biden on Ukraine. Some, like Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), will try to box him in on a no-fly zone — ignoring the negative externality of a nuclear exchange — while others will push him further than he wants on lethal aid to Ukraine. Win or lose, the GOP will declare that Biden blew his main chance. Even many sober foreign policy thinkers in the GOP will try to leverage Democratic "weakness" in Ukraine in the 2022 elections.
Sadly, this will end up folding very neatly into their pre-existing narrative that Biden is a doddering old fool who can barely tie his shoes.
The latest Pew poll shows that large majorities of both parties support Biden's leadership in gathering allies to put pressure on Russia and support Ukraine and most are in favor of the sanctions even if it means some personal sacrifice. At the moment, only a third would back a no-fly zone even if it risks nuclear war (which it would.) So, it would seem that Democrats are in a strong position. But they must remember what Wilson says: "GOP leaders don't care about reality; their audience doesn't care about the truth, and their political media apparatus always stays on message."
Biden's leadership has been steady and stalwart but the "Democrats are a bunch of weak-kneed wimps" is a powerful meme in American politics. I hope they are prepared for it this time.