One of the defining characteristics of politics – and one which reliably produces maximum drama – is how rapidly a fall from grace can transpire. The tumble from the penthouse to the outhouse brings to mind the old song about “riding high in April, shot down in May,” but it can actually come to pass in the space of far less than a month. Especially in the internet age, such a descent can happen in the twinkling of an eye.
It can result from personal scandal. Witness the soon-departing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, knocked unceremoniously off his high horse. Ask the likes of Sen. John Edwards, Gov. Eliot Spitzer, Rep. Anthony Weiner, and Sen. Larry Craig, among others, how their careers effectively ended overnight after scandalous revelations.
Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda
But it’s not just the scandal-ridden private lives of public figures that have permanently scarred the careers of politicians. There have over time been many ill-fated political decisions, events and statements that have come to define the offending parties – and produced a similar effect. You can bet that, if she had it to do over again, Hillary Clinton would not utter the phrase “basket of deplorables.” Mitt Romney would not freeze when he was deceived by the debate moderator about Benghazi. Gerald Ford would not declare that there was no Soviet domination behind the iron curtain in Eastern Europe. Al Gore would not roll his eyes and utter the word “lockbox” repeatedly during his encounter with George W. Bush. And after the Iraq war turned into a quagmire, Bush would certainly rethink his grossly premature declaration of “mission accomplished.”
Now, it might seem like long ago and far away, but in fact it has been less than a fortnight since Joe Biden hit the high point of his nascent presidency. He and his fellow leftists were strutting like peacocks, celebrating twin victories in Congress on a massive infrastructure bill and a gargantuan budget resolution enabling the Democrats to employ their paper-thin majorities to go to town on the national treasury.
Then came the fall of Afghanistan – and everything changed overnight. As someone once said, the higher the monkey climbs, the more you can see of his backside. And this 46th president showed the worst of himself in short order, for all the world to see.
In a matter of days, Biden was plunged back on his heels, publicly clueless or dishonest (which would be worse?) about our humiliating exit from a 20-year war and occupation, a catastrophe of mammoth yet still-unknown proportions, depending on the degree of goodwill offered by the terrorist Taliban regime. Think about that. America – and our Afghan allies – at the mercy of a band of troglodyte fanatics effectively holding us hostage with our own weapons.
But while we have heard a week’s worth of loud and near-universal condemnation of this president and his statements and actions, even from the reliable left-wing media, there is at the same time an opposite sound emanating from the nation’s capital: silence.
The Curiously Silent Majority
Since things went south in Kabul, we have heard nothing from Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill trying to close the deal on their massive tax-and-spend agenda. Much work remains to be done for Democrats to ram through their various far-left tax-and-spend proposals. But they have understandably tried to distance themselves from the political conflagration at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and have remained all but silent, obviously fearing that the stench of failure and defeat emanating from the White House will wound their hyper-aggressive domestic agenda. With the narrowest possible margin in the Senate, and at least two Democrat senators publicly wavering or opposed to the most controversial measures on the socialist wish list, this was the worst possible time for political disaster to hit.
As not just president, but leader of the Democratic Party, Joe Biden is responsible for convincing Americans of the wisdom of adding trillions more to an almost $30 trillion national debt, with inflation now rising to almost five times that of 2020 (5.4% currently, 1.2% last year). It was a hard sell to begin with, and one that may well contribute to Democrats losing control of one or both houses of Congress in 2022. But with Biden now damaged goods, his approval tumbling into the 40s for the first time after forfeiting so many perceived assets – integrity, competence, stability, and compassion – in stunning succession, will the Democrats’ legislative agenda be short-circuited? Or will a major foreign policy crisis have little or no effect on their dreams of massive government expansion?
The tension between international and domestic priorities – and the effect of one on the other – played out most dramatically with another Democrat president just over a half century ago. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson won a landslide victory as a surrogate for the recently martyred John F. Kennedy, and employed his mandate to pass a flurry of landmark legislation, headed by the Voting Rights Act and the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid. But LBJ’s fateful decision to send thousands of troops to Vietnam in 1965 backfired big time, generated violent protests and brought his domestic agenda to a crashing halt, as Democrats suffered huge losses in 1966 and lost the presidency in 1968.
Another striking example of the interconnectedness of international and domestic politics came in 1979, when the already widely perceived weakness of President Jimmy Carter was burned into the American consciousness with a botched attempt to rescue hostages in Iran, costing the lives of eight rescuers. Carter, roughly even in the polls at the time of the incident, subsequently suffered the worst beating of any incumbent president since Herbert Hoover.
Foreign affairs can indeed make or break a president. For George W. Bush, it did both. He had most of the nation behind him after his response to 9/11 and pushed forward successfully with tax cuts and other domestic legislation. But in expanding the war in Afghanistan and invading Iraq, his legislative plans were paralyzed as his approval numbers kept sinking like a rock, down to a record low of 25% as he left office. Although he was narrowly re-elected and served two terms, unlike Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, the legacy of Bush 43 was forever tarnished by a foreign disaster unfolding daily before the American public.
Before we gauge just how big an effect Afghanistan will have on the Democrats’ legislative agenda, the first thing for the party’s leaders on Capitol Hill to decide is when they will reappear in public, and how they will respond to the inevitable questions about their president’s actions in Afghanistan. That country and its capital remain a tinderbox, and until the bad news and images emanating from the war-torn region start to slow down or mostly disappear from the headlines – and who knows when that might happen – you won’t be seeing much of Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi and the gang. Once they get back in the game, the question then becomes whether the new hand they’ve been dealt will cause them to lose some or most of what they appeared ready to win just two weeks ago.
Read more from Tim Donner.