WHAT WILL VOTERS MAKE OF UKRAINE INVASION?
Let’s start with my standard proviso whenever talking about foreign policy and domestic politics: Voters work hard to not care, especially in a midterm contest like this year’s.
We could probably count on one hand the number of midterms in the modern era in which foreign policy was a significant issue.
Certainly the 2002 contests in which Republicans broke the midterm curse behind George W. Bush’s still-strong post-9/11 support would qualify, but you’d also have to say that was more about national security than foreign affairs. Bush’s father and his party were pretty clearly helped in November 1990 by the ongoing response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait: Bush the elder presided over the fewest first-term House losses of any president since John Kennedy. The U.S. misadventure in Somalia pretty obviously hurt Bill Clinton and the Democrats in 1994, and maybe Clinton’s dithering on Bosnia did as well. But they had enough causes for that year’s debacle even without Warren Christopher the nuances of “lift and strike.”
It’s just hard to get voters to engage—positively or negatively—on foreign policy unless there are direct consequences for Americans at home or U.S. forces abroad. That’s probably a good thing on the whole. Imagine how much more screwed up American foreign policy would be if more voters were engaged. Donald Trump’s effort to make NATO defense spending into a campaign issue generated, at most, the typical kind of soft-bigotry-of-low-expectations applause from voters already supporting him. Barack Obama’s “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world” scored about as well at home as it did abroad, which is to say “sifr.”
Or, if you prefer, we could go old school: In the 1918 midterm,s when the Spanish Flu pandemic was at its height—I swear this is actually true—Woodrow Wilson campaigned all the way through on his post-war diplomatic strategy and the League of Nations. Republicans won both houses of Congress and kept them for more than a decade. Put your 14 Points in your pipe and smoke ‘em.
I could show you lots of polls like this one from Gallup where foreign policy clocks in as the top concern for 1 percent of voters. Even if you add in national defense/security concerns and specific hotspots or issues like Afghanistan, Russia, and China and combine them, it’s still below concerns about the courts and the judiciary. But to prove how little the issue of world affairs matters to voters, especially when the president is not on the ballot, just ask yourself the last time you have ever seen a significant political expenditure on a foreign policy issue. But again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The American system and American voters—typically—defer to presidential prerogatives on international matters.
You wouldn’t want, for example, a former president going around and openly undermining his successor during an international crisis while simultaneously claiming that the successor’s authority is illegitimate. Never mind.
And one proviso about the proviso: Voters very much care about any consequences of international affairs, even if they shrug at the underlying cause. The 1974 drubbing that Republicans took was about Watergate and Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon two months before the election, but it was also about the Yom Kippur War. That was the pretext for the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries to institute an oil embargo that brutalized Americans already groaning under the weight of inflation. If you had asked swing voters whether control of the Golan Heights mattered to their vote, probably not. A 50 percent increase in the price of gasoline, if you could get it? You bet.
With all of that said, there’s an increasing likelihood that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be a hinge issue for the November elections. We don’t know in which direction because the range of potential outcomes is just far too wide. This could be a boon for Democrats if President Biden is seen as having organized a successful international response and the crisis abates (along with gas prices). Or, this could be a disaster for the party in power, as last year’s botched Afghanistan withdrawal proved to be.
Another big variable here is Republicans, who are just an angry mess these days. I can’t tell if J.D. Vance is running a Senate campaign or if this is a performance art piece. The standard line for the nationalist wing of the GOP is something like Trump’s riff on Ukraine border security instead of U.S. border security. This is not a bad message for the nationalists given how few votes are driven by foreign policy abstractions. Fifty-seven percent of voters oppose sending U.S. troops, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll. But the nationalists have a serious problem as “America First” seems to be turning to “Blame America First.”
While our well-sorted, evenly divided electorate is hard to move on any issue, Americans still show significant tendencies to a rally-round-the-flag effect in times of crisis. This could be a bad time for a party that has an activist wing with real affection for Eastern European authoritarianism. Quite a few Republicans have cultivated that view in recent years, which is fine when no one is paying attention to foreign policy. But if this is one of the times when voters dial in, it could be a very weird look.
Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.
Biden job performance
Average approval: 41.6 percent
Average disapproval: 52.8 percent
Net Score: -11.2 points
Change from one week ago: ↓ 0.4 points
[Average includes: Gallup: 41% approve-55% disapprove; Ipsos: 44% approve-51% disapprove; Quinnipiac University: 35% approve-55% disapprove; Ipsos: 43% approve-51% disapprove; Ipsos: 45% approve-52% disapprove.]
Generic congressional ballot
Democrats: 43 percent
Republicans: 43.8 percent
Net advantage: Republican party +0.8 points
Change from one week ago: Republican party -1.6 points
[Average includes: Quinnipiac University: 44% Democrat, 46% Republican; Ipsos: 42% Democrat, 34% Republican; CNN/SSRS: 43% Democrat, 44% Republican; Monmouth University: 43% Democrat, 51% Republican; Fox News: 43% Democrat, 44% Republican.]
TIME OUT: CARPENTER REBUILDING
Writer Ken Rosenthal tells the story of the journey of longtime St. Louis Cardinals stalwart Matt Carpenter, now a free agent after a late-career hitting slump turned into a skid. The Athletic: “Joey Votto was in Paris. It was late October, a few weeks after the regular season had ended. And Matt Carpenter, his old rival from the NL Central, was texting him, wanting to know how Votto had done it. How, at age 37, he had reversed the aging curve after three sub-par seasons and put together a year more typical of his brilliant career. … The two began texting. Carpenter, not knowing Votto was on vacation, said the conversation could wait. No, Votto said. He wanted to talk. The subject excited him. He knew exactly what Carpenter was feeling, recalled experiencing the same frustration from 2018 to ’20, when his offensive production plunged. ‘I’ve never had my heart broken in relationships,” Votto said. ‘I’ve had my heart broken those few years when I was playing poorly.’”
NRSC BOSS SCOTT STEPS ON MCCONNELL’S STRATEGY
Politico: “[Other] Senate Republican leaders have no plans to release an alternative agenda as they try to win back the majority this fall. So Rick Scott is pursuing his own plan. The Florida Republican senator is devising a conservative blueprint for Republicans to enact should they win Senate and House majorities this fall. Among Scott’s priorities: completing the border wall and naming it after former President Donald Trump, declaring ‘there are two genders,’ ending any reference to ethnicity on government forms and limiting most federal government workers — including members of Congress — to 12 years of service. It’s a bold move for the first-term senator and. But Scott said the 31-page GOP agenda he’s crafted is separate from his work chairing the party’s campaign arm, adding that it’s ‘important to tell people what we’re gonna do’ I t’s a clear break from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has declined to release a GOP agenda heading into the midterms.”
Brawl in the boroughs: New York Times: “The once-in-a-decade redistricting effort has created unusual congressional district lines all over the country, reflecting a partisan process embraced by Republicans and Democrats alike. But perhaps no other district in New York City contains constituencies so clearly in opposition to each other as the reconstituted 11th, whose new lines are expected to better position the Democratic Party to seize a seat now held by Representative Nicole Malliotakis, the lone Republican in the New York City delegation. …. On Staten Island, the occasional ‘Thin Blue Line’ flag in support of law enforcement flutters in spacious front yards of single-family homes, while in dense brownstone Brooklyn, ‘Black Lives Matter’ signs have often dotted windows… ‘They put two communities together that have literally nothing in common other than they happen to all live in the same city,’ said City Councilman David Carr, a Staten Island Republican.”
Michael Bloomberg: Dems about to get shook: Bloomberg: “The political earthquake that just occurred in San Francisco should be a dire warning to the national Democratic Party, because the same fault line stretches across the country and the tremors are only increasing. … I continue to believe that a healthy and vibrant Democratic Party remains essential to beating back the Republican Party’s dangerous turn toward authoritarianism and its tolerance for election subversion. But I am deeply concerned that, absent an immediate course correction, the party is headed for a wipeout in November, up and down the ballot. Three months after Republicans scored major election upsets in Virginia and New Jersey, largely because of the frustration parents felt with Democratic officials who catered to teachers’ unions and culture warriors at the expense of children, voters in San Francisco recalled three school board members by margins of nearly three to one. Coming from America’s most liberal city, those results should translate into a 7 to 8 on the Richter scale…”
House candidate admits boozy sleepover rant, hamper vomit, vows to stay in race AP
Dem donors duck secretary of state races—Politico
Listen: Chris breaks down Senate primaries and why politicians forgot how to use political capital with Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter—The Remnant
WITHIN EARSHOT: EVEN ICELAND?
“Morgan, do you know the only country on the whole planet where Africans were not brought as slaves? The Jewish state of Israel.”—GOP Senate candidate Josh Mandel to Democratic opponent Morgan Harper after she had answered a debate question about whether she’d give unconditional support to defend Israel if Iran attacks. The Atlantic slave trade ended more than a century before Israel’s founding in 1948.
“‘But it won’t be until the day after the midterm elections in November that we will really get a sense of how the Republican primary electorate will be thinking.’ Assuming that the expected and historically documented loss of seats in midterm election years for the President’s party bares out, how will that really affect what possible Republican 2024 candidates are thinking? There will be MAGA wins and there will be non-MAGA Republican wins. Overpaid political consultants will then try to sell a bag of magic election beans to the various MAGA and non-MAGA possible Republican candidates, and all comers will have something in the ‘Republicans Gained Seats’ news stories to confirm whatever narrative will compel them to run.”—Ken Levine, Lionville, Pennsylvania
Bingo, Mr. Levine! The trend since at least 2006 has been that the midterms drive the parties’ thinking about the following presidential election cycle. And you are very right that it won’t matter what actually happens, but what Republicans believe happened. As we saw with Democrats in 2018-2020, the perceptions are very often incorrect.
“When I read your piece [“It’s Time for an Age Limit for Federal Offices”] I considered that the entire argument might be tongue in cheek, but I have a suspicion that you are actually serious. Full disclosure, I am 68 years of age and was recently told by one of my leadership team that I seem to be in my prime! What surprised about your article is that it is a sophisticated description of a form of discrimination known as ‘ageism.’ Were you to make a similar case by parity of reasoning about any other form of discrimination regarding tenure in senior federal positions be it race, religion, gender, etc. you would find yourself in a very bad place. Why age? The largely unstated Achilles heel of your argument is that in a democracy the people choose who they want to serve. If they prefer octogenarians to Gen Xers then that is the will of the people. Gen Xers have every right to mobilize as a generation to have more of their demographic vote and be represented. Interestingly we have a long human history (literally millennia) of the aged “village elders” making decisions on behalf of the village. I wonder if there is some wisdom there?”—Barry Crane, Edmonds, Washington
I’m sure you are in your prime, Mr. Crane! And I bet you may still be in your prime in the year 2034 when you will reach the maximum age for federal office under my proposal. You seem to have lots of fire in the belly and I wouldn’t be surprised if you were still rolling strong well into your 80s. But this isn’t about any individual. “Ageism” would be if I chose to hire a younger (or older) applicant instead of another otherwise qualified applicant specifically because of the other applicant’s age. But it is not ageism for companies to have a uniform retirement age that is applied fairly or for states to set different requirements for all drivers over or under a certain age. Civil rights laws forbid discrimination based on race, religion, and gender, but uniform age restrictions are not necessarily discriminatory. I’m sure there are lots of 80-year-olds who would make great senators, representatives or presidents. But there are probably lots of 34-year-olds who would make great presidents, 29-year-olds who would make great senators and, and 24-year-olds who would make great representatives. The Framers wanted to set a threshold to make sure that our leaders had enough life experience to have wisdom. The primary reason I propose limiting federal office to those age 79 and under doesn’t primarily relate to the capacity of older individuals but to the advantages they enjoy in obtaining and retaining elective office. It is important that our government includes a mix of individuals that reflect the composition of the adult population because concerns vary depending on individuals’ age. Good leaders can account for others’ perspectives, but especially in representative government, it’s good to spread it around to get a variety of points of view. As for the democracy piece, it’s the center of my argument. Under the current rules for election and service, older candidates and office-holders have too many advantages for seeking and keeping office. A constitutional amendment limiting age would help balance things out. Of course, term limits would obviate a lot of this debate, as would changes to congressional rules to make it easier and more attractive for younger people to serve. This is obviously not the most pressing subject, but I do think we need to pay more attention to creating a Congress that works better, and bringing down the median ages from 65 in the Senate and 59 in the House would be a start. The form of government you describe —“aged ‘village elders’ making decisions on behalf of the village”—is a form of oligarchy called gerontocracy and might be a very good solution for a small group. What we should seek in our big, diverse, continental republic is to always value the wisdom that comes with experience, but to make sure that we have a variety of perspectives. Thank you for sharing yours!
You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and always good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission anonymous. My colleague, the ever-resourceful Samantha Goldstein, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!
CUTLINE CONTEST: JACK KLOMPUS STRIKES AGAIN
A newsletter that started with a discussion on the graying of the federal government got topped with a photo with three of the five oldest senators, from left, Chuck Grassley (88), Pastrick Leahy (81), and Dianne Feinstein (88) with whippersnapper Chuck Schumer, a mere 71. And your winner is:
“Board members for Del Boca Vista Phase III sit in session to consider a motion to remove Morty Seinfeld as condo board president.”—Jack Slade, Las Vegas, Nevada
“Jonah Goldberg, David French, Sarah Isgur, and Steve Hayes answer questions about the early days of the Dispatch (circa 2056)”—Jack Funke, Poplar Bluff, Missouri
It’s your last chance to enter February’s contest! Readers should send in their proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the top entrants and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!
WHEN POULTRY ATTACKS
WTNH: “Two turkeys can often be seen wandering around the Poquonnock section of town. Deborah Campagna videotaped them crossing the road in front of her Groton [Connecticut] home and stopping traffic. She said they also stopped her mail delivery twice now. The first time was back in late January when she did not get mail for two weeks. “They told us the turkeys attacked one of the postal workers,” Campagna said. Now, she said it is happening again. Last week, she only got mail on Monday and Thursday and said she is missing mail that contains documents needed for her income tax return. “My portal on the informed delivery shows that I’m missing about 13 pieces of mail right now and a couple of packages,” Campagna said. “So very frustrating.” That portal also showed on Saturday, Feb. 19 that her mail could not be delivered because of ‘animal interference.’”
Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Broken News, a book on media and politics due out in August. Samantha Goldstein contributed to this report.