On Aug. 12, as the Taliban raced toward Kabul and full control of Afghanistan, Concerned Veterans for America launched a new $2 million ad campaign urging President Biden to “bring our troops home from Iraq.” The timing could have been better.
The Koch-backed CVA had earlier this year spent $1.5 million on ads that urged Biden to “bring our troops home from Afghanistan.” The new Iraq-focused spots were playing as Americans were glued to images of Afghans and Americans scrambling for flights out of Taliban-occupied Kabul. Biden’s recent skepticism about “the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country” was being played on a loop.
Nearly two weeks later, the ads are still up. The conversation hasn’t moved on to Iraq, said CVA senior adviser Dan Caldwell, but the Afghanistan debacle hadn’t gotten many voters — or any members of Congress — to rethink their support for ending America’s post-9/11 wars.
“The usual suspects like the Cheneys and [Rep. Adam] Kinzinger [R-Ill.] are criticizing the concept of withdrawal, but that’s it,” said Caldwell, a veteran of the Iraq War. “There are short-term political incentives people see to take potshots at one party or another for these images we see from Afghanistan. But I don’t think there’s been a shift when it comes to ending these endless wars.”
The collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul has been a debacle for Biden administration, tanking the president's approval ratings and rattling his allies. Republicans who'd already questioned Biden's mental acuity or introduced articles of impeachment have gotten fresh material, and reinforcements from their colleagues.
But the first polls since the Taliban victory have found most Americans, while outraged about botched implementation, still in favor of troop withdrawal and convinced that the 20-year occupation was a mistake. The idea of “nation building,” widespread between both Democrats and Republicans when the war began, has vanished from mainstream politics and found no fresh takers after the Afghanistan collapse.
At a weekend swing through Iowa, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) repeatedly bashed the “old guard” of the GOP, from George W. Bush to Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), saying the party's hawks could never be allowed to take power again. The Republicans likeliest to defend a permanent occupation of Afghanistan had already been demoted, primaried or purged.
“There are far too many people in Washington who really don’t think you’re all that special,” Gaetz said. “They think they can they build Jeffersonian democracies out of sand and blood and Arab militias in the Middle East. They think we can go and create the 13 colonies out of the caves of central Asia.” Moments earlier, he'd asked the audience if it was ready to caucus for a Trump 2024 campaign. He heard only cheers and applause.
Trump's influence has shaped the Republican reaction to Afghanistan — his own responses to it, and the party's confidence that his opposition to “forever wars” was both smart politics and good policy. The ex-president ran in 2020 on a full withdrawal, and on the trail, he'd tie his deal with Taliban with the normalization of relations between Israel and four Muslim-majority countries. The national security establishment had been wrong. He'd be right.
“President Trump is the first president in a generation to seek to end war rather than start one,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said at the 2020 Republican National Convention. “I fear Biden will choose war again.”
The ex-president's statements on the current crisis have lost that coherence, with Trump at one point suggesting that the better exit strategy would be to “bomb the bases into smithereens” after evacuating American citizens and military equipment. “They wouldn’t even know we left,” Trump added, suggesting that “woke generals” had bungled the exit.
Frustration with Biden-era military leadership has been widespread in conservative media. Before the fall of Kabul, both Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley were widely mocked in those outlets, and by Republican members of Congress, for warning about the threat of domestic extremism. The emerging conservative critique, as the final Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline nears, is that a distracted and “woke” military class bungled the exit.
There has not, so far, been a return to the arguments made after America's ugly exit from Vietnam — that the war was winnable, on the terms the United States began with, if only the generals had been unleashed. The mission that the Bush administration sold in 2001 and 2002 was not just victory, but a transformation of the Muslim world.
“Because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom,” Bush said in his 2005 inaugural address, referring to the military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. “And as hope kindles hope, millions more will find it.”
The appetite for those politics has disappeared from Republican politics, a few years after it stopped being shared by Democrats like Biden.
“If anything, the speed of the Afghan military's collapses bolstered the argument that foreign interventions can’t reshape societies into liberal democracies,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who has found Republican partners for his efforts to draw down American involvement in the Middle East. “The criticism has been, ‘How could the evacuation have been handled better?’ Ten or fifteen years ago you’d have had people calling for sending troops in, like the surge in Iraq.”
The Biden administration has surged more troops into Afghanistan, for the purpose of evacuating Americans and Afghan allies. At most, some Republicans have suggested an enhanced presence, for now, to overpower the Taliban until the evacuation is over. But there's none of the idealism about long-term commitment that defined Republicans when the war started, and warnings about refugees have replaced the old rhetoric about lighting freedom's fire in Central Asia.
“Let’s ensure that we’re properly vetting them,” Senate contender J.D. Vance of Ohio said in a Monday video, “so we don’t get a bunch of people who blow themselves up in a mall because somebody looked at their wife the wrong way.” Within hours, he was making the same point on Fox News; days before, in Iowa, Greene warned that Afghan refugees might well become “anti-American” politicians like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), whose family escaped Somalia.
“President Trump was right,” Gaetz said. “He knows how to deal with a bully. You punch him in the face and you make 'em think twice about messing with America again.” His point was that Trump, unlike Biden, might have dropped bombs “from a great height” on the Taliban, protecting Americans that Biden didn't. That was all any president could do. “You don’t move in them for 20 years and try to realign your worldview.”
Some ninjas don't wear masks.
“A short-lived Trump campaign staffer is now at the head of the far right’s Jan. 6 counternarrative,” by Sarah Mimms
Who's Matt Braynard, and how did he become an advocate for pro-Trump “political prisoners”?
“‘It’s not our fight’ vs. ‘We owe them’: Americans debate what’s right in Afghanistan,” by Marc Fisher, Natalie Pompilio and Randy Ludlow
An unsettled country asks what comes after a 20-year war.
Voting when the world around you is on fire.
An indecisive summer in the year's most competitive race.
Computers: The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems.
On the trail
LOS ANGELES — Gavin Newsom came to town, and Kevin Paffrath followed. The governor of California headed into a Mexican restaurant, flanked by aides, local party officials and a security detail, to talk to some supporters. Paffrath, who had woken up before dawn to tail Newsom, stayed outside, flanked by two campaign strategists, talking to whatever media outlet wanted to cover him.
“He pretends that I don't exist!” said Paffrath, a 29-year real estate broker with a popular YouTube investment advice channel, after Newsom headed off. “Gavin Newsom is doing the same thing he's always done as a leader. He's being selfish. He's telling people to vote no on the recall and to leave part of the ballot blank. That's insane. It's either selfish or sabotage or both.”
The “sabotage,” according to Paffrath, is the strategy California Democrats agreed on when the Sept. 14 recall election became inevitable. They were wary of repeating mistakes from the 2003 recall election. It hurt the party, they believed, when the state's lieutenant governor ran as an alternative in the 2003 election that recalled Gov. Gray Davis.
Their message in 2021 is that the “Republican recall” is illegitimate, a choice between Newsom and right-wing commentator Larry Elder, by far the most popular GOP candidate on the ballot. Their advice to voters: Fill the “no” bubble,” put the ballot in an envelope and mail it in. Several candidates filed for the recall election as Democrats, but none had any experience or any help from the party or the labor unions that make up much of its field operation.
“There's nine Democratic candidates on the ballot,” a reporter told Newsom at the Aug. 14 event.
“Respectfully, there's one candidate out there on the other side,” said Newsom. “That's Larry Elder. He's running away with it.”
But there's also Kevin Paffrath, the only Democrat with a media presence or enough money to run a campaign. When he entered the race four months ago, that wasn't inevitable, and he reintroduced himself to nearly 1.7 million subscribers as a candidate with a 20-point plan for California. State income taxes? Not on your first $250,000 of income. Homelessness? Solved in 60 days with a state of emergency. Failing schools? Time for “future schools” that could “combine college, trade school, high school, and financial education.” He and Newsom shared a party label, but only he would try something new.
“I don't think that I have to assimilate with all of the far-left ideals of the Democratic Party to be part of the Democratic Party,” Paffrath said, sitting down at a coffee shop a block away from the Newsom stop. “I believe the Democratic Party stands for reasonable governance, common sense, but also progressive ideas. We think that future schools are a great idea, teaching that the government should be responsible for providing people access to careers and proper education and financial education. We think that taxes should be lower where they can be, but that comes when you run a more efficient government.”
Newsom will not debate any candidates in the recall, and the Democratic Party won't acknowledge any other Democrats on the ballot, who range from perennial candidates to activists worried that there's no liberal “insurance policy” if the recall succeeds. Paffrath lent $90,000 to his campaign and raised nearly four times that from donors, making him the highest-profile Democrat in the race.
Paffrath has led in one poll. Fortunately for him, it was the poll that first made Democrats panic about losing the election: SurveyUSA, which uses automated dialing and doesn't meet some media polling criteria, found the recall succeeding and Paffrath easily the most popular Newsom alternative.
Other polls have put Elder ahead of the mostly-Republican field, and Paffrath has not done as well when voters are not informed that he's a Democrat. But only Elder and Paffrath, with zero years in elected office between them, have led in any study of the second part of the ballot. Paffrath said he had already talked to some Sacramento Democrats about what they could expect from him, and he called a potential term a “one-year trial” — a replacement for Newsom would serve until January 2023. California's Democratic supermajority could and would hamstring a Republican governor, he said, but they'd take a different approach to a Democrat who promised to make “common sense” Democratic appointments.
“What's the worst case?” Paffrath asked. “A Republican gets in. The legislature will run the state for a year. The Republican governor will literally do nothing for the next year. And then in 2022, they'll say, look, you had a Republican for a year. You tried that flavor. They got nothing done. Bring the Democrats back.”
Paffrath's counteroffer was socially liberal, business-friendly centrism, if he could find a venue to sell it. On Wednesday, he'll appear alongside three Republican recall candidates in a debate for the first time, after trying to enter two other debates and getting rebuffed. He's continued to hold YouTube town halls in between clips of his investment advice. All of it is filmed in the same Ventura home studio, where a model of Thor's hammer has joined the background of screens, and as Paffrath has run for governor, his policy ideas have slipped into his financial analysis.
“He wishes that we could have a financial literacy course earlier on,” Paffrath told viewers last week, assessing remarks Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell had made to students last week, “which is also pretty cool, because it's part of my campaign.”
The closeness of the main recall question, and Paffrath's last-Democrat-standing status, have gotten him taken more seriously as the election grows closer. Not as seriously as he'd like. The Los Angeles Times, which editorialized against the recall, wondered if Paffrath “truly stands for anything besides his own fame.” The question grew out of Paffrath's most ambitious proposal: Create 80 emergency facilities and get every unhoused person in the state to use them for shelter and rehabilitation. “These facilities are totally optional,” he explained. “People come and go as they please. The one law that gets enforced is nobody sleeps on our streets.”
This is not a traditional Democratic idea. The last time Californians heard something like it was 2019, when the Trump administration reportedly looked at facilities that could get the unhoused off the streets and away from city centers. Paffrath sells the idea like he hosts his show: a memorable description (“our National Guard emergency facility plan”), total confidence in its success and disbelief that no one else has thought of this. And as a new Democratic governor, he plans to bring state legislators in on the “PR” side of the plan.
“We want all of them to feel like they're a part of this homeless solution,” he explained. “When it works, whether it works 100 percent or works 95 percent or works 90 percent, it's going to work better than what we're doing now. They're going to be part of that. So the first 60 days of the administration is executing it. Whether it takes 100 days or 60 days, that doesn't matter so much. It's getting it done. After that success, which we can do mostly through executive action, we go back to the assemblymen and -women and senators, and now it's time for a big infrastructure package. Now it's time for us to actually work on the problems, the causes of homelessness. For every dollar we spend on drug-abuse support, we save three dollars. It's logical. Let's do logical solutions.”
What do Paffrath's rivals think? It's hard to tell: They prefer to ignore his existence, which will get more difficult at Wednesday's debate. What has the campaign done for his YouTube career? Nothing good, he said. He lost a bid to get “Meet Kevin,” the handle he's used online since he started his channel, next his own name on the ballot.
“I grew my channel as neutral person who doesn't care if you're left or right,” he said. “I don't care if you're far left. I don't care if you're far right. Here's what's going on. Here's what I'm doing with my money. Maybe you want to do that too, or not. I don't care. Now, you start answering questions about critical race theory or vaccines and vaccine passports or stuff like that, and you lose people. So, it sucks. You know, views have gone down, revenue's gone down.”
He decided to run anyway.
“We evaluated that risk,” he said. “And for us, it's not about eyeballs or media. It's about folks in California.”
No Labels, “The Biden Agenda (Henry Cuellar)." Nine House Democrats, mostly from districts carried by President Biden, have gummed up the party's summer floor agenda by saying they won't vote to move to the $3.5 trillion budget package (which contains most of the president's priorities) until the bipartisan infrastructure deal (which doesn't) becomes law. Holdouts like Cuellar, who defeated a left-wing primary challenger, are getting air cover from the Chamber of Commerce and No Labels, and the ad blurs out a key factor: Biden does not support Cuellar's insistence on linking the bipartisan bill with the Democratic budget. “Now's the time, right now, for the Biden-Cuellar agenda,” a narrator says, advancing Cuellar's case that the infrastructure bill should be passed first.
Justice Democrats, “Rep. Cuellar Blocking Biden Infrastructure Package.” The left-leaning groups founded after 2016 to elect more liberals in congressional primaries got more comfortable with big donors and TV ad campaigns last year. They usually focused their buys on individual races. But the effort to protect the House Democratic budget holdouts has pulled Justice Democrats into the fray, with ads in each of the nine holdout districts. “These nine conservative Democrats are sabotaging Biden's agenda,” a narrator tut-tuts, “because it would make billionaires and corporations pay their fair share.”
House Majority Forward, “Getting Better.” The permanent ad war we wrote about last month is, well, permanent: It doesn't slow down when there's an intraparty fight over the budget. The Democratic House PAC continues to run spots promoting what incumbents in swing seats have done so far, and this spot promotes Rep. Lauren Underwood of Illinois, a favorite of Democratic leaders whose district could get bluer in redistricting. “Next up? Fix our aging infrastructure,” a narrator says, underlining how important the bipartisan package is for the party's messaging (and, one presumes, for the infrastructure).
Jack Ciatterelli for Governor, “One Issue.” Twenty-two months ago, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy told an audience at Rowan University that his state was “going to lose” someone who considered tax rates, and nothing else, when deciding where to settle. “If you’re a one-issue voter, and tax rate is your issue — either a family or a business, if that’s the only basis upon which you’re going to make a decision, we’re probably not your state,” Murphy said. He was drawing a contrast with low-tax states that offered fewer services, but Republicans used that quote against Democrats in 2019 state legislative campaigns, and GOP gubernatorial nominee Jack Ciatterelli brings it back for this spot, cutting out the “only basis” clause of the sentence. “Who says that?” Ciatterelli asks. “Phil Murphy just doesn't get it, but I do.” Polling has found voters trust Ciatterelli and Murphy roughly equally on the tax issue, while they give Murphy a lopsided lead on handling the pandemic.
Joe Biden job approval (Suffolk/USA Today, 1,000 registered voters)
The first national Suffolk poll testing Biden's approval is also, by far, the worst showing of his entire presidency. The reason is Afghanistan, which has confounded voters. By a 15-point margin, they supported the withdrawal of troops from the country, and by a 36-point margin, they believe that Biden bungled the process. That's why the White House's press shop has focused so intensely, since the weekend, on the raw numbers of people being evacuated: It's the first metric that shows their plan beating the expectation of media and voters.
2022 Michigan governor election (EPIC-MRA, 600 likely voters)
Gretchen Whitmer (D): 45%
James Craig (R): 44%
Until earlier this year, Craig was the Black chief of police in Detroit, with no partisan electoral record. He's now exploring a bid for governor, and polling has found him to be competitive before voters outside Michigan's biggest city know much about him. More than half of Michiganders have no opinion of Craig, but he has no problem capturing Republican support and Whitmer critics. In two consecutive elections, the Michigan GOP nominated John James, a Black veteran with no experience in elected office, for Senate, but did not see many gains in Black precincts. Craig, who's clashed with high-profile Democrats like Rep. Rashida Tlaib over their opinions of crime and policing, is more familiar to Detroit voters than James ever was.
In the states
California. More than 1 million ballots have already been returned ahead of the Sept. 14 recall election, and most of them have been cast by registered Democrats. According to Political Data Inc., which has been crunching the return numbers, nearly 605,000 mail ballots have been collected from Democrats, compared with around 236,000 from Republicans and around 236,000 from voters who belong to minor parties or have “no party preference.” (That's usually shorthanded as “NPP,” a share of the electorate that surpassed registered Republicans during Donald Trump's presidency.)
This is a fraction of California's electorate, less than 10 percent of the total vote in the 2018 election that put Gov. Gavin Newsom in office. But as Inside Elections reporter Ryan Matsumoto first noted, it's comparable to the electorate from the first week of early voting in last year's presidential race. At this point last year, three weeks out from the election, 57 percent of returned ballots came from Democrats, compared with 21 percent from Republicans. As of Tuesday morning, 58 percent of recall ballots had been cast by Democrats, compared with 20 percent from Republicans.
The first-week electorate was less racially diverse than the eventual 2020 electorate. Just 3 percent of eligible Latino voters have cast ballots compared with 5 percent of Asian voters and 6 percent of White and Black voters. As in 2020, Republican voters also say they're far more likely to cast ballots in person than to drop them in the mail; that's leading both parties to expect more Republican turnout as the race grows closer.
Democrats also have a simple message — “vote no” — while Republicans are still battling for the top spot on the recall's second question. “I think people are still shopping for a candidate, and kicking the tires,” said Randy Economy, a former spokesman for the recall. “I don't know if Larry Elder is the right person to govern our largest state.”
Economy went to work for former Rep. Doug Ose before the Republican ended his recall candidacy last week. Ose endorsed Assemblyman Kevin Kiley on Tuesday, the first case of a recall candidate backing one of his former rivals, and a sign of frustration in Elder's campaign, which has eschewed debates in favor of media roundtables, rallies and interviews on conservative media.
Georgia. Former football star Herschel Walker is running for Senate, ending months of speculation that was often fanned by Donald Trump, who considered the athlete “unbeatable” if he sought political office. Polling has found Walker in a close race with Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.), though Republicans point to this race, and the Senate race next door in North Carolina, as cases where Trump's personal affinity for candidates cuts against the party analysis of who might have the best chance to win. As Walker considered the race, reporters pored over divorce records, and his description of struggling with dissociative identity disorder.
… 21 days until California's recall election
… 70 days until elections in New Jersey and Virginia, and primaries in Florida’s 20th Congressional District
… 140 days until the election in Florida's 20th Congressional District
An earlier version of this article misstated whom Dan Caldwell, senior adviser with Concerned Veterans for America, cited as one critic of the concept of withdrawal from Afghanistan. He referred to Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), not to former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. The article has been corrected.