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The Normalcy Candidate
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The Normalcy Candidate

The political peril of linking Ukraine and Israel.

U.S. President Joe Biden addresses the nation from the Oval Office of the White House on October 19, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Jonathan Ernst - Pool/Getty Images)

I don’t like to criticize anyone for doing the right thing.

And what follows isn’t criticism, really, just an observation about the agonizing position in which the president and his administration suddenly find themselves. Joe Biden has behaved admirably in supporting Israel and Ukraine against two distinct flavors of fascist irredentism. It’s just hard to see how it ends well for him politically.

I hope you enjoyed your break from Eeyore yesterday because today he’s back and gloomier than ever.

On Thursday night, Biden addressed the nation. The immediate goal was to persuade Americans to back Israel’s war on Hamas, but the more ambitious task the president assigned himself was convincing his audience that that conflict and Ukraine’s fight with Russia are two sides of the same coin.

Both allies are combatants against … oh, let’s call it an “axis of evil” for lack of a better term.

Hamas and Putin represent different threats, but they share this in common: They both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy—completely annihilate it.

So let me share with you why making sure Israel and Ukraine succeed is vital for America’s national security. You know, history has taught us that when terrorists don’t pay a price for their terror, when dictators don’t pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos and death and more destruction. They keep going, and the cost and the threats to America and to the world keep rising.

American leadership is what holds the world together. American alliances are what keep us, America, safe. American values are what make us a partner that other nations want to work with. To put all that at risk if we walk away from Ukraine, if we turn our backs on Israel, it’s just not worth it.

Iran, another member of the axis, is supporting both enemies of democracy in this war, Biden pointed out. In the end, he uttered the word “Israel” 23 times—and the word “Ukraine” 24. Which was, er, unexpected in a speech that was supposed to be about Israel.

But not that unexpected. Under the circumstances, not linking the two conflicts would have been political malpractice.

MAGA Republicans long ago soured on supporting Ukraine against a post-liberal strongman who cloaks his authoritarianism in Christianity. As Democrats rallied behind the Ukrainian cause and the war settled into a stalemate, the wider GOP base gradually moved toward the populist position. A Quinnipiac poll published a few days ago found 61 percent of Republicans now believe the U.S. is doing too much to help Ukraine, which means the next round of funding for Zelensky’s forces in the Republican-controlled House (I use the word “controlled” loosely) will be rough sledding.

The obvious solution for the White House, then: Link funding for Ukraine to funding for Israel, an ally whom most Republicans support staunchly (if perhaps temporarily). The White House’s proposed $106 billion aid package for both countries is effectively a poison pill, forcing MAGA Republicans to choose between blocking aid to Israel for the sake of blocking aid to Ukraine or to grit their teeth and swallow both at the same time.

It makes strategic sense. The people whom you would expect to be upset about it were upset about it. Just tell me this: How likely is it that the political outcome for Biden in all this will be a good one?

I’ll accept “who cares?” as an answer—it’s usually the right one when discussing a politician’s fate—but we’re all going to care next November. A lot.

Going all-in on supporting Israel and tying that support to Ukraine will exacerbate two problems that have dogged Biden. One is unrest among progressives over the pace of “progress” under his administration. The other is the persistent sense of abnormalcy during a presidency that was supposed to restore normalcy to America.

Whatever you thought you were getting when you voted Democratic in 2020, a Bush-ian call to arms against Axis of Evil 2.0 probably wasn’t it.

An Oval Office address allying the president with Israel in the eyes of the world seems at first blush like a clever way to split the Republican Party. The American right has traditionally viewed Israel as a bulwark of Judeo-Christian values against a barbaric enemy and itself as a bulwark of support for Israel against left-wing apologists for barbarism in the United States. Having the head of the Democratic Party position himself as Israel’s champion will scramble that paradigm and confound some Republican populists prone to believing that everything Democrats support is evil and wrong.

In fact, a grand rethink might have already begun.

Those are (relatively) savory examples. There are less savory ones.

It’s good for Biden when right-wingers are at each other’s throats, and they will be at each other’s throats as Israel’s war plays out. Just not, perhaps, as much as left-wingers will be.

There was news yesterday that a “mutiny” is brewing inside the State Department among employees who are unhappy with the administration’s support for Israel. One staffer has already resigned, and claims to have received encouragement from many colleagues who feel the way he does. Reportedly a “dissent cable” is being drafted to formally notify Antony Blinken and the department’s leadership how unhappy the dissenters are.

Earlier the same day, a group of more than 400 congressional staffers released a letter calling on Congress to support a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas before the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) ground campaign begins. Granted, that isn’t a huge percentage of all Hill staffers, but the point isn’t to imply that these voices represent the majority of Democratic opinion—they don’t.

The point is that these voices exist; they’re a political problem for Biden and his party; and they’re likely to grow larger and louder once urban combat in Gaza commences.

Justice Democrats is a well-known progressive outfit dedicated to electing leftists in the “Squad” mold. I invite you to scroll through their feed on The Platform Formerly Known as Twitter to see how they’ve been reacting to the new conflict in the Middle East. A taste:

That’s a sign of things to come. Because realistically, there’s no outcome to Israel’s offensive against Hamas that the left-wing base will regard as acceptable, if by “acceptable” we mean justifying the conflict retroactively.

Even a ground incursion that led, miraculously, to the IDF liquidating Hamas’ leadership with few civilian casualties would be disdained by progressives as a case of the “colonizer” having imposed its will through violence. The far more likely (probably inevitable) scenario is that the battle is a bloody mess, innocent Palestinians caught in the middle do most of the bleeding, and Israel fails to eliminate Hamas entirely. Left-wing outrage will grow day by day. The perception that Israel’s operation achieved nothing meaningful at great human cost will become leftist orthodoxy.

And those leftists will blame Joe Biden, a president for whom they feel no special affection, for having taken moral ownership of the conflict preemptively and enthusiastically.

Worse, because the president has now linked Israel’s cause to Ukraine’s, progressive disillusionment about the former may start to weaken Democratic support for the latter. Exasperation at the IDF’s campaign in Gaza may remind the left of its anti-war glory days, a position from which it’s drifted over the past decade as the right has pivoted toward isolationism under Trump. Mainstream liberals will never follow the anti-anti-Putin lead of the populist right, but it’s easy to imagine a drift back toward anti-interventionism that accelerates their restlessness with the pace of Ukraine’s effort.

By next summer, the president could find himself under pressure to bring both conflicts he sponsored to unsatisfying ends, before either Ukraine or Israel has achieved its goals. The only thing worse than defying your base by condoning war is to come back with little to show for it.

Joe Biden can’t afford to lose any more support before Election Day, especially with prominent left-wing alternatives like Cornel West and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in the race. The odds are very good that his position on the new Axis of Evil will end up costing him some.

But not just on the left.

Political nerds gasped collectively on Thursday when CBS News dropped these new numbers:

The same poll showed higher support for sending humanitarian aid to Gaza than for sending weapons to Israel, leaving even the pros flummoxed and struggling to make sense of it. A Quinnipiac poll published a few days ago found healthy American support for sending weapons and military equipment to the Israelis at 64-28. Democrats favored the idea by a margin of 30 points, Republicans by double that number.

The polls seem irreconcilable. Maybe the CBS News data is the outlier. But it wouldn’t shock me if it wasn’t.

That’s not because the public is turning against Israel, the best efforts of Rashida Tlaib and other hospital-bombing truthers notwithstanding. If voters are leery of American involvement in this matter, I suspect it’s because they fear that domestic and now foreign affairs under Biden’s leadership have spun entirely out of control. Their impulse, perhaps, is to pull back before something cataclysmic happens.

There are people in the government who share their anxiety, allegedly.

Impressive monthly jobs reports have obscured how much voters still chafe at the state of the economy. Inflation remains too high even according to Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell and public disgruntlement about it has begun to produce genuinely frightening polling for Biden 2024. When Gallup asked recently which party would do better in handling the economy, the GOP came away with its biggest lead in more than 30 years. A new Morning Consult survey of seven battleground states saw Trump ahead of Biden by four points overall and by 12 points on questions about which candidate could be trusted to handle the cost of everyday goods and services. There are even numbers circulating that show Republicans erasing their traditional deficit with Democrats when voters are asked which party cares more about “people like me.”

Inflation is, quite literally, beyond the White House’s control and has remained that way for two years. That’s not what people who voted for normalcy in 2020 were counting on. Go figure that the president’s plan to run on “Bidenomics” hasn’t done a thing for his job approval so far.

Then, on Thursday night, Americans turned on their televisions to find the “normalcy” candidate asking them to get pumped about bankrolling a two-front proxy war against Russia and Iran that might plausibly spiral into a wider conflict involving American troops. Asking taxpayers to send billions to one foreign military after we’ve sent many billions more to another was destined to be a hard sell at a moment when daily necessities are more expensive than they’ve been in years. But linking the two conflicts conceptually, as Biden did, also implicitly confirmed that the risk of a wider war is real. To the casual voter, the White House appears to have lost control of international affairs now too.

Which might explain the reluctance to arm Israel in the CBS News poll, assuming it’s accurate. The less confidence the electorate has in Biden, the less inclined it’ll (logically) be to entangle itself in dangerous conflicts abroad. Ironically, the president has been keen to warn Israelis lately not to let their righteous rage at Hamas’ atrocities lead them to make strategic miscalculations like the U.S. did after 9/11. American voters may feel the same way about Old Man Biden himself: His burst of moral solidarity with Israel is welcome, but they doubt his judgment in a crisis.

If that’s so, then his pivot from “Bidenomics” to war president as a campaign theme won’t work out as well for him as he might hope. He’s most likely going to be running against a strongman, and a strongman is never more appealing than in moments of chaos. Whatever Trump’s faults, his supporters will insist, he’ll at least restore order.

For some voters, in other words, the “normalcy candidate” on the ballot in 2024 might be … Donald Trump. Sure, he might try a coup every now and then, but with him in charge at least wars won’t be breaking out all over the world and food won’t cost 30 percent more than it used to. Or so Americans who lived through four years of his leadership without any major wars or inflation might tell themselves.

There were warm words for President Biden following Thursday night’s speech on, of all places, Fox News. “I think it may be remembered as one of the best—if not the best—speeches of his presidency,” Brit Hume gushed. “On two important counts, I think he did remarkably well and was quite strong, quite firm.”

That’s nice. Thirty years ago, when America still had a huge faction of swing voters, it might even have been significant. Show of hands, though: In the America of 2023, how many Fox News viewers will not only give Biden credit for his position on Israel, but will resolve to vote for him over Trump because of it?

Of those Republicans who might consider voting for him, how many will end up talking themselves out of it on grounds that Trump did a lot for Israel too (which he did, per the Abraham Accords)? Or that Biden is actually part of the problem here because he sought rapprochement with Iran, or because his recent efforts on Israel’s behalf somehow weren’t robust enough? Or that, even if Biden is preferable to Trump on Israel, he’s too much of a disaster on other matters like securing the southern border to ever consider supporting him over the proto-fascist favored by the GOP?

There’s no constituency for taking on Axis of Evil 2.0 except among centrists, and most of the center-right won’t vote for him, period. Of those who will, I suspect most were already committed to him on pure “anyone but Trump” grounds.

The cohorts that are most likely to switch their votes based on the president’s response to Hamas’ rampage, it seems to me, are pro-Palestinian leftists who’ll treat it as the last bit of encouragement they needed to vote third-party and normie voters who fear that an 81-year-old president is no longer on top of events here or abroad.

We may not need to wait until Election Day next fall for evidence. Rep. Dean Phillips is reportedly angling to enter the Democratic presidential primary and give the president some token opposition; he’s no radical, but if there’s a groundswell of leftist discontent with Biden’s foreign policy, he’ll be the logical repository for a protest vote in states like New Hampshire. A surprisingly weak showing by Biden would imperil his candidacy and make a Trump restoration that much more likely.

Biden’s done the right thing on Israel, yet it’s probably still a vote-loser for him on balance. And although he had sound reasons for linking Israel’s cause to Ukraine’s, we should worry that the left-wing base’s disdain for the former and the right-wing base’s disdain for the latter will lead each side toward contempt for the entire project conceptually, ultimately undermining support for both allies. 

I warned you that Eeyore would be back today.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.