The ‘Optics’ Factor of Biden and the 2021 Election Cycle in NJ


Bam, he’s here.

Well, Tuesday, in Manville, to tour a flood-ravaged land.

There’s some context.

It is no secret that people vote with their hearts as much, if not more so, than with their heads.  The weight of “optics” in politics cannot be overstated and can make or break a politician.

As has been written elsewhere countless times, this summer paid witness to the end of America’s longest war, the end of a generation of foreign occupation in Afghanistan and the fulfillment, by the Biden administration, of one of the Trump administration’s election goals: bring the troops home.

President Trump’s negotiations with the Taliban arranged for the withdrawal of American forces by May of this year, earlier than the actual withdrawal took place.  With Trump’s electoral defeat, whether or not he chooses to accept that reality, the agreement was now in the hands of his successor.

The events which followed are now the stuff of history and will be examined, interpreted, and picked apart for its political, military, social, and even economic consequences.  For the purposes of Insider NJ’s audience, we focus on the political.

President Biden spoke to the nation, confident that the Taliban would most likely not return to power—or at least not any time soon.  After all, the US and NATO had been training the Afghan National Army and equipping it for longer than some of their soldiers have been alive.  With modern American tech and a nominally 300,000-strong army, surely the Afghans would stand up to defend their country.

Except they didn’t.  Not at all.  The ANA gave up with not so much as a shot fired.  City after city fell, host to Taliban truck convoys and their triumphant white banner, promising Islamism and a return to Sharia law.  The red, black, and green Afghan flag fell in the provinces faster than expected until only Kabul, the capital, remained.  The president, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country without a trace, only to pop up later in the UAE.

A hasty evacuation was ordered as thousands of Afghans fled before the Taliban.  The images of Afghans crowding the tarmacs, desperate to board commercial and military flights to get anywhere, just so long as it was away, are burned into the memories of all those who watched the news.  The US embassy was evacuated by helicopter, instantly invoking parallels to the Fall of Saigon in 1975.  The West was out, but the Chinese and Russian delegations remained, assured by the Taliban they had nothing to worry about.

The August 31 deadline was one President Biden was steadfastly committed to, despite the urgings of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who wanted more time to evacuate refugees who had worked with NATO.  But the president was not going to risk breaking the deadline.  Under incredible conditions, the armed forces withdrew thousands of Americans, allies, and allied Afghan nationals in one of the most extraordinary modern aviation operations.  ISIS-K, no friend of the Taliban, killed 13 US servicemen and killed and wounded over a hundred Afghans in a suicide attack, prompting Biden to respond with airstrikes, promptly killing a top ISIS figure in response.

Biden put on his war face as he best could at the podium before the cameras.  He was resolved to, somehow, make a chaotic situation appear to be the best possible outcome given the conditions and situation.

Ignoring the pleas of the Prime Minister, Biden stuck to the withdrawal deadline, bringing NATO allies out with the Americans.  Maj. General Chris Donohue of the 82nd Airborne was the last American soldier to leave the country that had been a battlefield since the days after 9/11 when George Bush was halfway through his first term.

Biden was adamant that the war not be passed onto another administration and he was determined to end the war which Americans had, in general, given up on years ago.  The problem was not so much the end of the war, but its ignominious end.

According to the Washington Post-ABC News, for the first time since his inauguration, Biden now nets a higher negative than positive with the public.  A small margin, 51% thinks he is not doing a good job versus 44% which thinks he is doing a good job.  This may seem a dark time for the administration which has not finished Year One of the term but should not be overstated or taken too seriously for now.  For example, even without the damning images of the evacuation, Donald Trump in August of 2017 could not exceed an approval rating of 37%, according to the Gallup poll.

Biden is still riding high if one wishes to contrast him with his predecessor as far as numbers go.

The good news for Biden is that the midterm elections are still a year off, but the sloppy handling and underestimation of the Afghan National Army’s speedy ability to throw off their Yankee arms and equipment will haunt him for the rest of his administration.  Republicans will inevitably weaponize the iconic images seen on TV as proof that Biden is not fit to serve.

Much of this is hyperbolic and spin, and any Insider is well aware of that, but the images will resonate and have a profound impact on Americans’ ultimate electoral question: are we better off now than before?

For all intents and purposes the answer is yes.  Biden fulfilled Trump’s goal of ending the war, something Post-ABC says enjoys major bipartisan support: 88% of Democrats, 74% of Republicans, and 76% of independents.  About half of voting-age Americans said that while they support the withdrawal, they did not approve of the way it was handled.  A quarter were fine with getting out as well as how it was done.

Democrats are not yet playing defense, as far as the home game goes, but they are close.

What does this have to do with New Jersey?

Veterans in office and those seeking office will be able to capitalize on the wind-down of Afghanistan with amplified voices by virtue of their service with respect to military affairs.  They can credibly attempt to translate that into political messaging.  Without a midterm election this November, Biden as well as Democrats will have a certain buffer, but Democrats will frame the argument in terms of the ends, not the means.

Representative Mikie Sherrill, who served in the US Navy for nine years, said on August 24, “The critical mission now is getting all American citizens and our Afghan allies in the SIV program and their families to safety, as well as additional vulnerable Afghans like women and girls who served in leadership roles. This is, of course, of particular concern to me because we, America, supported their efforts to access education and leadership roles throughout Afghanistan and they are now in danger as a result of taking on those roles.  So, our focus needs to be on executing this mission. Everything else is a distraction. And from the reports we’ve seen and heard, the several thousand soldiers and marines currently on the ground in Kabul are executing it well, with compassion, care, and efficiency and I want to commend our military members. Make no mistake, this evacuation is an extremely dangerous mission and is set to get more dangerous in the coming days.”

Sherrill continued to offer praise for the “dedication, professionalism, and sheer hard work of our military” which was undertaking the evacuation.

US Senator Bob Menendez, who is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, did not hide his displeasure with the administration’s handling of the withdrawal, joining with the 52% of American adults of the same opinion.  Menendez was clear, however, that the roots of the problem were not Biden’s blame, alone.  “The wholly inadequate agreement the Trump administration made with the Taliban did not get commitments for the Taliban to break ties with Al Qaeda, nor did it account for the day after our withdrawal,” Menendez said in August.  “In implementing this flawed plan, I am disappointed that the Biden administration clearly did not accurately assess the implications of a rapid U.S. withdrawal. We are now witnessing the horrifying results of many years of policy and intelligence failures.”

Menendez continued, saying, “The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will continue fulfilling its oversight role with a hearing on U.S. policy towards Afghanistan, including the Trump administration’s flawed negotiations with Taliban, and the Biden administration’s flawed execution of the U.S. withdrawal. The Committee will seek a full accounting for these shortcomings as well as assess why the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces collapsed so quickly. Congress was told repeatedly that the Afghan Defense and Security Forces were up to the task, that it had the troops, equipment and willingness to fight. To see this army dissolve so quickly after billions of dollars in U.S. support is astounding.”

The message here to the American people is clear: this is not our fault.

New Jersey Republican State Chairman and former senatorial opponent to Bob Menendez, Bob Hugin, slammed the administration with a statement at the same time.  Hugin said, “The Biden Administration’s cataclysmic failure in Afghanistan has jeopardized American lives, emboldened our adversaries like Iran, China and Russia, and undermined our allies like Taiwan and Israel… The only thing Joe Biden proved yesterday is that he could read a prepared speech written by incompetent, inexperienced progressive operatives who are all too comfortable threatening our national security as well as our standing in the international community.”

Do Democrats in New Jersey need to worry about Biden’s Afghanistan fall out as election day marches closer?  Not particularly, but they will need to be prepared for attacks by Republicans, given the nationalization of the parties.  They wasted no time.  LD4 Republican candidate Denise Gonzalez, a Marine Corps veteran, said, “Clearly the Joe Biden & Phil Murphy Democrats don’t care about protecting women and children and they don’t care about protecting our country. The only thing that the Biden Murphy Democrats plan on protecting is their own personal interests. The Joe Biden & Phil Murphy Democrats only want to play politics because for them the power grab is much more important than protecting our allies in the region or the lives of our citizens. It is time for all citizens in New Jersey to stand up and demand more from our elected officials. As a Marine Corps veteran, I will not stand down, I will stand up and fight for our constitution and South Jersey as the Citizens of United States of America deserve.”

“Biden-Murphy Democrats” is a demonstration of the nationalization of the parties on display.

“I find myself asking where are Joe Biden, Phil Murphy, and the rest of these Democrats who ran up and down telling us that they would make the world a safer place. Where is Joe Biden and Phil Murphy while all this turmoil is taking place? Murphy is in Italy enjoying a vacation at his plush estate,” Gonzalez said.

Nevermind the fact that Phil Murphy has nothing to do with foreign policy and that the war in Afghanistan was begun by the Bush administration, the political attempts to tie state-level politics with the international are inevitable in election season.  Murphy was criticized for taking in the Italian sun while coronavirus continues to batter the state, but that was an issue he has some input into.  Tying him to Afghanistan runs the danger of coming off as amateurish, ham-fisted, and crude.  With no specific, tangible policy grounds to structure an argument on, the most service that can be made is simply appealing to the Republican base that “Democrats” brought about this bad ending.  “Democrats” will have “lost” the war, a war which, according to the Post-ABC poll, the majority of Americans have not supported since 2009, when Barack Obama was still a new president.

Representative Jeff Van Drew, a conservative Democrat who changed parties to become a Republican and Donald Trump’s highest-level ally in the state, is being challenged by Tim Alexander for his seat.  Van Drew on Fox News said, “With this administration it is failure after failure after failure. Honest to God, I cannot believe I’m saying this, it literally is time for this president to resign. It is time for this vice president to resign. It is time for the Senate president and Speaker to resign. We need new people, even new Democrats, hopefully that are moderates. We can’t keep doing this.”

Van Drew’s call for the resignation of the entirety of the nation’s top federal leadership was promptly seized upon by his challenger, Tim Alexander.  “Jeff Van Drew’s ridiculous calls for resignations of the President, Vice President, and Democratic leaders in Congress show just how far he’s gone from being a servant dedicated to getting things done for the people of South Jersey regardless of party affiliation. This is not a time for cheap political stunts or pathetic attempts at scoring points. Jeff Van Drew’s calls for resignations is nothing more than a pathetic stunt by a desperate career politician.”

Even Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell knocked down any idea of removing the president.  “Well, look, the president is not going to be removed from office.  There’s a Democratic House, a narrowly Democratic Senate. That’s not going to happen,” McConnell said in his home state of Kentucky.  He shot down any notion of impeachment proceedings, preferring to put the GOP focus on the midterm elections where they can constructively dedicate their energies.

Every midterm tends to serve as a referendum on the top leadership, whether the president or the governor.  With Phil Murphy headed to election day in November against Jack Ciattarelli, the latter has danced clumsily with culture-war issues and has shifted much of his messaging to steadier, more viable topics like heavy taxation, where voters dealing with the pandemic are continuing to feel the pinch in their pockets.  Murphy has no input on State Department affairs and Democrats can use that if they are bludgeoned by Kabul-related political attacks.  What Murphy does have, however, is the ability to make New Jersey a welcoming place for incoming refugees.  To that end, he established a task force as refugees arrive at Fort Dix.  Murphy may have had nothing to do with the prosecution of the war, but he can bring about policies that support the 68% of Americans who believe, after security screenings, Afghans who helped the US and NATO should have the opportunity to be resettled here.  Opposition to the resettlement program would provide red meat for Democrats able to paint their opponents as xenophobic or hypocritical with respect to the sacrifices made on Afghans’ part for American interests.

These arguments continue to represent the dangers and advantages—depending on the circumstances—of the highly nationalized nature of the two parties and how those seeking office can frame public perception, even when the relevancy is thin or non-existent.

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