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Attack on Israel Puts Foreign Affairs on the 2024 Map
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Attack on Israel Puts Foreign Affairs on the 2024 Map

Plus: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says he may spoil the race—for both Biden and Trump.

President Joe Biden speaks on the terrorist attacks in Israel alongside Secretary of State Antony Blinken from the State Dining Room at the White House on October 7, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

It’s Monday. Afghanistan’s handover to the Taliban was built up over years; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was telegraphed for weeks; Hamas’ sudden strike from Gaza into southern Israel took the whole world—other than their co-conspirators—by surprise. We’re in a different world today than we were last time this newsletter hit your inbox.

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  • In the wake of Hamas’ surprise Saturday terror attacks on south Israel, President Joe Biden reaffirmed his administration’s “rock-solid and unwavering” support for Israel and proclaimed that Israel “has the right to defend itself and its people, full stop.” Many congressional Republicans and Democrats followed suit, expressing strong support for Israel. Sen. Lindsey Graham commended Biden’s “strong statement”: “There will be pressure to limit Israeli operations, as in the past, but I expect Congress and the Biden administration to stay strong and not give into such pressure.”
  • Several hard-left Democratic lawmakers took a different approach, calling for immediate deescalation on both sides of the conflict. Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri said in a statement that “violations of human rights do not justify more violations of human rights, and a military response will only exacerbate the suffering of Palestinians and Israelis alike.” “As part of achieving a just and lasting peace,” she added, “we must do our part to stop this violence and trauma by ending U.S. government support for Israeli military occupation and apartheid.”
  • The sudden conflict puts unexpected pressure on House Republicans to choose a new speaker, with the House essentially paralyzed and unable to respond until a new presiding officer is elected. Acting Speaker Patrick McHenry’s role is largely ceremonial, amounting essentially to overseeing the process of selecting a new speaker; the fact that the House has never before removed a speaker midstream means the legal issues around whether he can—for instance—receive crucial intelligence briefings remains an untested legal area.
  • Republican presidential contenders immediately blamed President Joe Biden for the war now unfolding in Israel. Their comments were punctuated by a tweet from Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who claimed Biden’s “negotiation funded the attack” and declared the president directly “complicit.” Scott was presumably referring to a deal the Biden administration made with Tehran to unlock Iran’s access to $6 billion in previously blocked funds in exchange for the release of five American hostages. That money is still sitting in a Middle East bank account.
  • Nikki Haley’s campaign claims the Republican presidential contender raked in more than $11 million in the third quarter fundraising period ending September 30. The former South Carolina governor, on the rise in public opinion polls, will report $11.6 million in cash on hand, with $9.1 million available to spend in the GOP primary. “We have seen a big surge in support and have real momentum,” Haley spokesperson Olivia Perez-Cubas says in a statement issued Monday. 

Will War in Israel Scramble the 2024 Primary?

Even with a land war raging in Europe for more than a year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the unfolding 2024 presidential campaign has focused primarily on domestic issues. The conflagration in Israel that erupted Saturday is poised to elevate foreign affairs, opening new battle lines in the race for the Republican nomination.

Unlike the divisions roiling Republicans over Ukraine, support for the Jewish state after a deadly, surprise attack by the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas is virtually unanimous among the GOP contenders. But some Republican presidential contenders seized on the fresh military conflict in the Middle East to paint their primary opponents as naive appeasers whose dovish foreign policy would make the United States, and American allies, more vulnerable to attacks from adversarial regimes and terrorists.

“I call on Donald Trump, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Ron DeSantis to abandon the language of appeasement—to say that we will stand with Israel, we will stand strong with Ukraine, we will stand as the leader of the free world,” former Vice President Mike Pence said over the weekend while campaigning in Iowa, referring to the former president, the wealthy biotech entrepreneur, and Florida’s governor, respectively. 

The barbaric attack by Hamas has left more than 700 Israelis dead and was reportedly planned in coordination with Iran. Additional Israelis were kidnapped by Hamas and being held in captivity in Gaza, the small strip of territory along a sliver of Israel’s southern border where Hamas has ruled since 2007. Israel has since issued a former declaration of war and mobilized a counterattack. As expected, Trump, Ramaswamy, and DeSantis quickly expressed support for Israel. But despite Republican unanimity, reflecting the strong support for the Jewish state among grassroots conservatives, the war is poised to expose an existing intraparty rift on international affairs. 

Traditional conservatives running in the 2024 primary—including Pence, Nikki Haley and Chris Christie—have been advocating for continued U.S. global leadership to preserve a world order that has existed since the end of World War II. They say this is the best way to protect U.S. national security and preserve American economic dominance. The conservative populists—Trump, Ramaswamy, and even DeSantis—have pushed for less involvement abroad by Washington, especially in Ukraine, citing pressing domestic problems they argue should have first call on taxpayer dollars. This debate has generally revolved around Ukraine.

Besides casting a bright spotlight on the gap separating the Republican presidential candidates on foreign policy, the war in Israel could put the non-interventionist populists on their heels and sideline the desire for isolationism coursing through elements of the GOP. Ten years ago Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican with non-interventionist tendencies, was a popular potential 2016 presidential candidate, but interest in him began to wane after the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Ironically, Trump could be the political beneficiary of unrest in the Middle East as he looks to lock up his overwhelming lead in the Republican primary. The former president has a record as commander in chief that includes negotiating historic peace accords between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors and, crucially, containing Iran. Under orders from Trump in early 2020, the U.S. killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top terrorist, in a military drone strike.

Haley, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, could also see a bump in the primary. She is among the few viable consensus GOP alternatives to Trump who also has a record on foreign policy to brag about to grassroots conservatives. She can talk fluently about such issues and has spent months indicting the former president’s leadership on international affairs, arguing he has made Americans less safe. Whether Haley can win that argument is another matter.

Regardless, many prominent Republicans believe this aspect of the primary campaign now has much more salience than it did on Friday.

“The horrific images on the screens of Americans this weekend will change the political environment. Foreign policy has played a minor point up until this Saturday morning will come to the top along with the failed border, the economy, and inflation as the most important issues,” says David Carney, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire. “Whether it changes the order of finish or not is too early to tell.”

Attack Portends Hurdles Ahead for Biden

Meanwhile, the war in Israel poses major complications to President Joe Biden’s reelection bid. 

Domestically, the conflict in Israel would appear easier for Biden to navigate, politically, than has been the case for the war in Ukraine. Americans across the political spectrum have long supported taxpayer assistance to the Jewish state. The president does not have to worry about any of his potential opponents in the general election, or recalcitrant congressional Republicans, advocating against legislation that might be needed to authorize sending military aid and material to Jerusalem, which is how many lawmakers have responded to his recent requests for assistance to Kyiv.

Biden has been in regular contact with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent days and says Israel can count on Washington. “This is not a moment for any party hostile to Israel to exploit these attacks to seek advantage,” the president warned terrorists and rogue regimes. He has also ordered U.S. military assets into the region as a show of force and solidarity with Israel.

But the opening of a second theater of war on Biden’s watch presents distinct challenges to an incumbent commander in chief whose job approval ratings are at their lowest point since he was inaugurated more than two and a half years ago. At least, that’s what many Republicans think, including those who are privately concerned about the prospect of a second Trump term and are otherwise unconvinced the former president is capable of beating his successor.

“It is potentially devastating to President Biden’s re-election campaign,” a Republican consultant in Washington says. “He campaigned on bringing stability back to D.C., the White House and the world. But what we’ve seen is tremendous instability economically—inflation, interest rates—at the southern border; chaos in a lot of major cities; and, war in the Middle East involving our closest ally Israel.” 

“Trump’s claims that none of this would have happened on my watch will resonate,” added a second Republican consultant, who is based in a Midwestern battleground state. “It may feel specious to those who read Foreign Affairs, but not many people in Allegheny, Kent, or Pima counties have subscriptions. It’s simple, logical and believable on its face.” 

As president, Biden has an opportunity to lead in war time, a political dynamic that has benefited incumbents in the past even when a conflict occurred on his watch. That was certainly the result for President George W. Bush after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. And of course, Biden is not dealing with any penetration on American soil. No such attack has happened on his watch.

But a key element of his sales pitch when he defeated Trump in 2020 was that he would bring stability and competence back to the White House, including in foreign affairs. With wars in Ukraine and Israel beginning during Biden’s presidency, both of which followed his gross mishandling of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, voters already concerned about his leadership may be persuaded that he doesn’t deserve to be reelected. With senior Hamas and Hezbollah officials claiming Iran was partially responsible for coordinating the attack on Israel, Biden’s decision to reengage with Tehran on multiple fronts could also face tough scrutiny from voters.

Democrats who typically acknowledge Biden’s political risks vis-a-vis 2024 claimed no anxiety about the developments over the weekend, specifically. Or, perhaps it’s simply that Trump does not yet strike them as a plausible messenger for better management of U.S. foreign policy.

“Anyone who was paying attention to Trump and the hash he made of foreign relations—cozying up to [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin and [North Korean dictator] Kim Jong Un, while insulting our NATO allies, blabbering about top-secret information—would have to be nuts to think Trump would be a more reassuring hand on the tiller than Biden during these times,” says Garry South, a longtime Democratic strategist in California.

“If foreign policy is at the front of voters’ minds and it’s Trump versus Biden,” adds a second Democratic strategist, “Democrats win that comparison hands down.” (Some of the Democratic and Republican sources The Dispatch spoke with to discuss the domestic political ramifications of the war in Israel requested anonymity to speak candidly due to the sensitive nature of ongoing events in the Middle East.)

RFK Jr. Launches Independent Presidential Campaign

PHILADELPHIA—Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s gadfly primary challenge against Joe Biden has been one of 2024’s most interesting sideshows. But on a pop-up stage in front of a modest but enthusiastic crowd at Philly’s National Constitution Center Monday, he announces he is becoming something more: A candidate that matters.

“I’m here today,” the Kennedy scion and environmental lawyer turned anti-vaccine and anti-corporate activist tells his audience, “to declare myself an independent candidate for president of the United States.”

As America continues to lurch toward the Trump-Biden rematch that voters routinely tell pollsters they don’t want, Kennedy’s independent turn threatens to throw a wrench into the race with the age-old third-party question: Which frontrunner will this hurt more?

“The Democrats are frightened that I’m going to spoil the election for President Biden, and the Republicans are frightened that I’m going to spoil the election for President Trump,” Kennedy says. “The truth is, they’re both right.”

On paper, a Democrat going rogue and offering himself as a third-way choice could be expected to peel more votes away from the Democratic candidate. But conservative and anti-establishment media have spent months lionizing Kennedy as a man of the people exposing Biden’s political weakness, and his conspiracy-inflected iconoclasm has more in common in some ways with today’s Republican base than with the Democrats.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s Republicans rather than Democrats who are treating Kennedy’s announcement as a real danger. “RFK Jr. cannot hide from his record of endorsing Hillary, supporting the Green New Deal, fighting against the Keystone Pipeline, and praising AOC’s tax hikes,” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel tweeted Monday. “He is your typical liberal and voters won’t be fooled.” The RNC later elaborated with a list of “23 reasons to oppose the candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.” (from “He is a self-described ‘Kennedy Democrat’” to “He once called Republican voters ‘misinformed’ because they believe in God and don’t read the New York Times”).

But the trouble for McDaniel and company is this: The hypothetical Trump-Kennedy voter isn’t attracted to Kennedy because they incorrectly believe him to be a staunch conservative. They liked Trump because they perceived him to be an outsider unbeholden to the “establishment,” and they like Kennedy for the same reason—and professional Republicans trying now to spit him out of their mouths is unlikely to move the needle in that department.

A Kennedy event has a bit of the complete-outsider, Madagascar-type energy that powers a Trump rally, but with an enormous helping of hippie granola on top. (Kennedy was preceded on stage by a purported elder of the Washoe tribe, Mountain Eagle, who led the oh-sure-why-not crowd in an indigenous dance and praised the candidate as the man to “Make America Sacred Again.”)

Terry Fitzsimmons, who flew redeye from Washington state on Monday morning to attend the event, told The Dispatch that “Trump’s been a wonderful thing for the country.” But the prosperity Trump brought had been “more or less a material thing”; what Kennedy promised was national spiritual rejuvenation.

“I kind of hope [Trump] joins this team at some point. It is possible—not under Kennedy, but with him,” Fitzsimmons said. “There isn’t anybody running for president that understands life to the depth that this man does.”

“His whole view of ‘heal the divide’—he’s already healed the divide in my heart,” Christine Caridi-Jones of New York told The Dispatch. “I used to hate Trump with a passion. I mean, I just couldn’t stand the sight of him. And now I see why people were kind of, like, drawn to him. I feel a lot softer about him.”

Tina Santaguida, a Vietnamese immigrant and Pennsylvania resident, described herself as a “Republican for Kennedy” who had started paying more attention to politics out of indignation at vaccine mandates at her kids’ schools: “I didn’t come to this country for those people to bully me.” She said she likes Trump, but “if it’s between Trump and Kennedy, I would go with Kennedy.”

Joe Caudill, a transplant from eastern Kentucky to New Jersey, told The Dispatch he had been a Trump supporter until January 6: “He really started about the election fraud, about all that. I didn’t like that. I felt like that was un-American.” On Kennedy: “I really like his policies about anti-war and wanting to help the middle class buy homes.”

You get the idea: You don’t start to like Kennedy without having idiosyncratic politics, but there’s a lot of different idiosyncratic paths that currently end at his door. Whatever else you can say about his presence in the race, it has certainly made gaming out the election more complicated.

Notable and Quotable

“Whatever the conference wants, I will do.”

—Rep. Kevin McCarthy to radio host Hugh Hewitt after being asked if he would be willing to serve as House speaker again, October 9, 2023

Andrew Egger is a former associate editor for The Dispatch.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.