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The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

The U.S. military has a politics problem

The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Welcome to The Daily 202! Tell your friends to sign up here. On this day in 1991, more than 92 percent of voters in Ukraine backed independence from Moscow.

The big idea

The U.S. military has a politics problem

It’s a tough time to be a major U.S. institution. Television news? Congress? Big Business? They’re all at major deficits when it comes to Americans’ confidence in them. Historically, the U.S. military has enjoyed much, much better ratings. But a new poll is sounding the alarm.

From 2018 to 2022, trust and confidence in the uniformed services plummeted from 70 percent to 48 percent (it was 45% in 2021), according to the Ronald Reagan Foundation and Institute survey. No other public institution has endured as steep and speedy a fall, the foundation warned.

Many factors have contributed to this collapse. But none more so than the public’s perception that the military leadership has become overly politicized. A total of 62 percent of Americans said that accounts for a great deal (34%) or some (28%) of the drop.

Interestingly, it’s a bipartisan phenomenon.

Both Democrats (24%) and Republicans (43%) put it in second place among reasons for decreased trust and confidence. Number one for Republicans was so-called “woke” practices (which the poll did not define) at 47 percent, while for Democrats it was the presence of far-right extremists in the ranks, at 32 percent.

Overall, though, the second heaviest public-perception millstone around the military’s neck is the performance and competence of presidents (59%) followed by that of the military’s civilian leadership (55%), then that of uniformed military leaders (52%), the foundation found.

A steady decline

The general drop in confidence hasn’t just been steep, it’s also been consistent: From 70% in November 2018, to 63% in October 2019, to 56% in February 2021, to 45% in November 2021 (the withdrawal from Afghanistan probably fueled some of that 11-point fall), to 48% this November.

Leave aside generals-turned-presidents, a regular feature of the republic since its founding, or troops serving as backdrops to presidential speeches about national security. The military — especially retired officers — have gotten more drawn into partisan fights in recent years.

It’s no surprise that the collapse gathered speed when Donald Trump was president. His clashes with generals — of the active kind, and the retired and televised varieties — were frequent headline fodder. That might explain the relatively greater weight of the argument on the GOP side.

But even before him there were warning signs.

Former generals delivered partisan speeches at the two major conventions in 2016 — retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen fired up the Democrats, retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn galvanized Republicans.

More recently, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, has taken fire for a range of actions.

  • Milley, in uniform, joined then-president Trump for a fateful walk from the White House to St. John’s Church after authorities had forcibly cleared Lafayette Square of protesters. He came under fire for thrusting the military into domestic politics. He publicly expressed regret.
  • Later, he reportedly made disparaging behind-the-scenes comments about Trump, who demanded he resign and called him a traitor. (Milley's office disputes this.)
  • And Republicans expressed outrage when Milley publicly defended the teaching of critical race theory in an elective course at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“While several military leaders chose to involve themselves in partisan politics — Flynn, Allen and Milley — mostly our military are desperate to stay out of this fray,” said Kori Schake, who has held a variety of senior positions at the Pentagon, the State Department, and the National Security Council. 

In 2020, there were concerns about Americans in uniform at each of the major party conventions. And Trump worried some in the Pentagon with references to “my generals” and “my military.”

The real blame for the public thinking of them in partisan terms is the relentless use of our military by politicians: Uniformed in campaign ads by candidates of both parties, Biden’s Marine backdrop for a speech about democracy failing, Trump castigating ‘the generals,’ Republicans castigating the serving Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a traitor,” said Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

“It’s terrible for the bond between our military and our society,” she told The Daily 202.

Civilian control

There’s another politicization challenge, though it may not look like one to people who don’t study civilian-military relations.

Two recent defense secretaries — Jim Mattis under Trump, Lloyd Austin under President Biden — needed special congressional waivers to serve because they had not been retired long enough under a statute meant to reinforce civilian control of the military.

Among the potential negative effects, this may fuel the perception that a political appointment is the capstone to a great military career, and mid-level officers may take decisions with visions of future confirmation hearings dancing in their heads.

The poll doesn’t explicitly connect these concerns to recruitment shortfalls, but it found that, among Americans 18-29 years of age, just 13% say they are highly willing to join up, 25% are somewhat willing, 20% and not very willing, and 26% are a hard no.

If the problem is politics, what’s the solution?


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What’s happening now

Biden hosts Macron at White House

“Today, President Biden is hosting French President Emmanuel Macron at the White House for a visit that will include a joint news conference and the first state dinner since Biden took office. White House officials expect discussions about the war in Ukraine to be front and center during Macron’s visit,” John Wagner and Mariana Alfaro report.

More: Macron, in Washington, says Biden’s agenda could ‘fragment the West’

McCarthy says Republicans will investigate Jan. 6 committee’s work

“In a letter sent Wednesday to Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman of the bipartisan panel, McCarthy instructed the committee’s members to preserve all of its records and testimony transcripts, even as he acknowledged that was already required under House rules,” Amy B Wang reports.

Senate could take up measure to impose rail deal, averting a strike

The Senate could take up legislation Thursday forcing a contract between national freight railroads and unions, averting a Dec. 9 strike that threatens travel, supply chains and the busy holiday shopping season,” Lauren Kaori Gurley reports.

Biden to meet Prince William, Catherine as race controversy roils royals

The White House announced that President Biden plans to meet William and Catherine on Friday when he is in Boston. Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday that officials were finalizing the details of the meeting,” Jonathan Edwards and Annabelle Timsit report.

Lunchtime reads from The Post

The abortion diaries

Pregnant and desperate in post-Roe America

Over the next decade, if recent trends hold, more than a million people with unwanted pregnancies are likely to run up against an abortion ban. Some will find a way, traveling hundreds of miles or securing illegal pills through the mail. Others will resign themselves to parenthood,” Caroline Kitchener reports.

The Washington Post made contact with three pregnant women who were seeking abortions while living in states with strict abortion bans. These women, reached early in their pregnancies, communicated regularly with The Post, sharing their experiences through calls, text messages and other documentation that supported their accounts. They participated on the condition that only their first names be used to protect their privacy.”

These are their stories.

Education wars are fiercest in politically mixed places, survey finds

Political conflict around schools, surging nationwide, is most common in politically diverse areas, far more than in places that are solidly liberal or conservative, new research finds,” Laura Meckler reports.

“At the same time, schools in more politically mixed communities were likelier to have dropped programs that train teachers to have productive conversations around controversial issues.”

Lawmakers who benefited from FTX cash set to probe its collapse

“The Senate Agriculture Committee is the first of three congressional panels to convene a hearing on the matter, with Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) Chairman Rostin Behnam set to testify. Behnam, a former Senate Agriculture Committee staffer, has been angling for jurisdiction over crypto markets, and in the months before FTX’s collapse, both the committee and the company had been pushing to hand it to him,” Tory Newmyer reports.

… and beyond

ICE accidentally released the identities of 6,252 immigrants who sought protection in the U.S.

The unprecedented data dump could expose the immigrants — all of whom are currently in ICE custody — to retaliation from the very individuals, gangs and governments they fled, attorneys for people who have sought protection in the U.S. said. The personal information of people seeking asylum and other protections is supposed to be kept confidential; a federal regulation generally forbids its disclosure without sign-off by top officials in the Department of Homeland Security,” the Los Angeles Times’s Hamed Aleaziz reports.

What was released: Names, birth dates, nationalities and detention locations 

Republicans doubled down on anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in the midterms. It wasn’t a winning platform.

The numbers say what headlines haven’t: Anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric carries little weight with voters, even if the talking points make a lot of noise. That’s one of the takeaways experts and advocates are reaching after a lukewarm showing by far-right Republicans during the midterms,” the 19th’s Kate Sosin reports

The latest on covid

Teen brains aged faster than normal from pandemic stress, study says

The stress of pandemic lockdowns prematurely aged the brains of teenagers by at least three years and in ways similar to changes observed in children who have faced chronic stress and adversity, a study has found,” Katherine Reynolds Lewis reports.

The Biden agenda

Another appeals court rejects bid to revive Biden student loan relief

“A federal appeals court rejected the Education Department’s request to put a hold on an order from a federal judge in Texas vacating President Biden’s student loan forgiveness program,” Danielle Douglas-Gabriel reports.

“The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit arrives weeks after U.S. District Judge Mark T. Pittman in Texas declared Biden’s policy unlawful, effectively shutting down the program to cancel up to $20,000 in federal student debt for more than 40 million Americans.”

Biden administration prepares to end monkeypox emergency declaration

Health officials are likely to issue a 60-day notice later this week for winding down the declaration, two people with knowledge of the matter told POLITICO. Such a move would put it on track to officially expire by Jan. 31,” Politico’s Adam Cancryn reports.

How millennials are being shut out of the housing market, visualized

Millennials have always lagged behind other generations in homeownership. They started their careers in the shadow of the Great Recession, when highly paid work was hard to find. Lower earnings, high student debts and reduced wealth have followed them ever since,” Alyssa Fowers reports.

Hot on the left

Some rail workers, seeking sick days, say Biden betrayed them

“For many of the more than 100,000 freight rail workers whose unions have been negotiating a new labor contract since 2020, however, Mr. Biden’s intervention amounted to putting a thumb on the scale in favor of the industry,” the New York Times’s Noam Scheiber reports.

“They say the rail carriers have enormous market power to set wages and working conditions, power that is enhanced by a federal law that greatly restricts the workers’ right to strike compared with most private-sector employees. They complain that after waiting patiently through multiple procedural steps, including a presidential emergency board, they had a narrow window to improve their contract through a labor stoppage and that Mr. Biden has effectively closed that window.”

Hot on the right

Friends to the left of him, critics to the right: McCarthy’s stuck in the chase

“House Republicans are playing high-stakes tug of war with Kevin McCarthy’s speakership dreams. And now both sides are digging in their heels,” Politico’s Olivia Beavers and Jordain Carney report.

On the GOP leader’s right, conservatives are meeting with House rules officials to strategize ahead of a planned floor challenge to McCarthy during the speakership vote on Jan. 3. Meanwhile, centrist Republicans are making threats of their own to colleagues who’d bulldoze McCarthy — including that they’ll work with Democrats to recruit a GOP speaker candidate more to their liking.”

Today in Washington

At 11:45 a.m., Biden and Macron will hold a news conference.

At 8:50 p.m., Biden will host a state dinner for the Macrons at the White House.

In closing

Biden’s first state dinner menu nods to France, and his own tastes

“President Biden and first lady Jill Biden are known to be every-eaters, typically favoring red-sauced pastas and chicken tenders. But in the menu for the state dinner on Thursday night honoring French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte Macron, their usual brand of homey-classic is getting an appropriately elegant polish, starting with an elegant first course of butter-poached lobster and caviar and finishing with a crème fraîche ice cream — a highbrow version of the president’s favorite dessert,”  Emily Heil writes.

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.