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Pointing Fingers

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, and Commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie stopped by the Hill yesterday for a chat with the Senate Armed Services Committee about the Afghanistan withdrawal. The dominant theme of the many hours of testimony: Cover your ass.

There were really three interest groups, or factions, or camps—you can choose which word you like best—in the room yesterday. The first faction was the Republicans, who want very badly to pin all of this on Joe Biden. So, their questions were laser-focused on that goal. They managed to get a few useful talking points out of the trio—particularly Milley—which we will get to in a moment. On the whole, however, the Republican members weren't especially effective. In part, that is because the version of events they are peddling doesn't square with reality. And in part, that is because today's Republicans generally lack subtlety, and each of these three high-ranking men are very smart and know what it looks like when they are being steered into dishing dirt. While they are willing to be truthful, they are not about to throw their boss completely under the bus.

The second camp was the Democrats, who want very badly to pin this on Donald Trump, and more broadly to frame it as a 20-year failure that started with George W. Bush, continued through two additional presidencies, and left Biden holding the bag. The Democrats, particularly Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), were a little more successful than the Republicans in advancing their goals. In part, that is because their version of events is considerably more rooted in reality. In particular, Warren repeatedly made the very salient point that Republicans are slamming Biden now, but they said nary a critical word about the Doha agreement that was negotiated by the Trump administration and that committed the U.S. to a pullout on a "this year" timetable. You can't have it both ways, was her point. The Democrats also had greater success because the three witnesses are going to be more willing to be frank about former commanders-in-chief, particularly the recent one that none of the three likes, than the current commander-in-chief.

And finally, the last interest group was the military, represented by two current generals and one retired general. They had, and have, several goals: (1) appear apolitical, (2) avoid tearing down Joe Biden too much, and (3) pin all of this on the civilians and not the military. As the trio dealt with various questions, while trying to accomplish these things, there were three main revelations:

  1. 2,500 Troops: Back in August, Biden sat for an interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos. And during that appearance, Stephanopoulos grilled the President: "So no one told—your military advisers did not tell you, 'No, we should just keep 2,500 troops. It's been a stable situation for the last several years. We can do that. We can continue to do that'?" Biden's response was: "No. No one said that to me that I can recall." On Monday, Milley and McKenzie directly contradicted that, declaring that their consistent point of view, and their consistent advice, was to keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.

    This, of course, is the talking point that Republican politicians and the right-wing media have seized upon, using it to make two arguments about Biden. The first is that Biden is a liar (or is showing his senility). We're only going to address the "liar" part, since the senility thing is unsupported with evidence, and is something that opponents of the President throw out reflexively whenever they can. Anyhow, Biden quite clearly hedged a bit when answering Stephanopoulos, leaving open the possibility that he was indeed advised to keep 2,500 troops. This suggests he wasn't being entirely honest when he said that and that he knew it. On the other hand, the generals hedged a bit yesterday, referring to keeping troops in Afghanistan as their "preferred" option, but not going so far as to say they strongly advocated for that position. Historians get to deal with these sorts of discrepancies all the time and know that, in general, the truth is somewhere in the middle. And so, the guess here is that the generals did suggest leaving troops in Afghanistan once or twice and then, when it was clear that would not be happening, put that opinion in their pocket and left it there.

    The second argument being made against Biden is that he thinks he knows better than the military, and that he ignored their expert advice and substituted his own judgment. "Biden was not entirely honest" has some merit to it. This argument, by contrast, does not. Military leadership is very provincial, and sees issues through the lens of their own needs, concerns, and goals. The same is true of cabinet secretaries, progressive members of the House, conservative members of the Senate, families of deployed soldiers, lobbyists, and countless other interest groups. It is literally the job of the president to take all of these disparate perspectives, to distill them down, and to use his judgment to make a decision. If presidents did not overrule their generals, George McClellan would still be encamped on the north bank of the Potomac while begging for more men; the U.S. would have invaded northern France two years earlier, and perhaps two years too soon, in World War II; there likely would have been a nuclear war with China over Korea; and the U.S. would still be slugging it out in Vietnam (and Iraq, and Afghanistan). To Milley's credit, he noted repeatedly that the buck does stop with the president, and that anything the generals say is just advice that the president is free to disregard.

  2. Strategic Failure: Milley, who clearly spent some time working up this phrasing, described what happened in Afghanistan as "a logistical success but a strategic failure." This was the Democrats' favorite talking point, since it allowed them to zoom in on how things went so wrong over the course of the entire conflict. Milley conceded that the Afghan army had not been trained to operate on its own, without American support, and that it was never going to last, long-term. He also said that the key turning point was the Doha agreement, which wrecked morale among both the American and Afghan armies.

    "Logistical success but a strategic failure" is a neat bit of wordplay, since strategic decisions are primarily made by the civilians, while logistics are handled almost entirely by the military. In other words, Milley's formulation basically translates as: "the military did a great job, but the civilians screwed up." Of course, it wasn't the civilians who were (badly) training the Afghan army. In fact, that does not seem like a strategic issue at all, it seems like a...logistical issue.

  3. Long-Term Damage: Milley did not particularly want to address this subject, but the Republicans insisted. Austin, McKenzie, and he all agreed that the war on terror is not over, and that the withdrawal from Afghanistan emboldened ISIS, Al-Qaeda, etc. And in response to a question from Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), Milley also said: "I think that our credibility with allies and partners around the world, and with adversaries, is being intensely reviewed by them to see which way this is going to go. And I think that 'damage' is one word that could be used, yes."

    The "revelation" that the war on terror is not over, and that ISIS, Al-Qaeda, etc. are going to be emboldened is hardly a revelation. We wrote that several times, and we've never been high-ranking military officers, not even for a day. Nor did we stay at a Holiday Inn Express before writing that. The real question, which Republicans did not particularly care to pursue, is whether pouring billions of additional dollars into Afghanistan, and continuing to put American lives in danger, is the most efficacious way to limit terrorism. Biden decided that it wasn't, and, based on polls, the majority of the American public seems to agree. Actually, based on their response to the Doha agreement, the majority of Republicans in Congress seem to agree, too.

    As to America's credibility abroad, boy oh boy did Milley try to tread lightly with that one. Of course, he's just making his best guess, and this would hardly be the first time that someone predicted gloom and doom for American credibility abroad (see pretty much everything William Westmoreland and Curtis LeMay said/wrote after Vietnam, for example). Based on the general response in foreign media, it seems that most people abroad understand why Biden made the choice he did and support it. More broadly, however, much of the 21st century world order has the U.S. as its foundation. Other countries may have no real choice but to put their faith in America. For example, the Aussies didn't seem to have too many concerns about credibility when they agreed to the AUKUS deal.

So, where does this go from here? Well, to start, Duckworth said she is preparing legislation that would form the Afghanistan War Study Commission, which would take a very careful look at the entire 20-year span of the war, and would try to figure out exactly what went wrong. If that bill becomes law, and if Afghanistan is placed under a microscope, that could lead to some very useful conclusions. Maybe, just maybe, the U.S. can avoid yet another sequel to Vietnam.

Beyond that, one wonders what Milley's shelf life is in his current post. He got roped into that Bible photo-op with Donald Trump, and then came the revelations that he was running interference in the final weeks of Trump's term and also acting as a shadow Secretary of State. Now, Democrats are unhappy about some of the things he said on Monday. The General has tried to remain "above politics," but he's not having enormous success, and one wonders how much more damage his image can take before he's pressured to resign.

And finally, there is the impact on Biden. Afghanistan has already taken its place among the litany of complaints that Republicans wield against Biden; these days it's ImmigrationAfghanistanJobKillingInflationGasPricesLaptopKeystoneVaccineMandatesMentalDecline, often sputtered out without pauses between the items on the list. Undoubtedly, that fires up people who were never going to vote Biden/Democratic anyhow. However, we are sticking with our view that by the time of the next election, in 406 days, Afghanistan is just not going to be a key issue, and that nearly all voters will have other things (economy, pandemic, infrastructure, etc.) on their minds. (Z)

The Budget Ballet Continues

This is the big story this week, so we shall do our part to keep everyone up to date, even though much of this maneuvering will ultimately prove to be inconsequential posturing. There are enough moving parts here that it's clearest to just go through each of the dancers in this little performance and cover what their latest contributions are:

Somebody on this list is going to blink. Maybe it will be many somebodies. Hopefully, for the well-being of the U.S. economy, we find out within the next week or so who it will be. (Z)

Texas Unveils Its District Map

Texas gets two new congressional seats, and the Republican Party is in a position to gerrymander things any way they see fit. The question was how aggressive Texas Republicans would be in trying to squeeze as many seats out of the map as is possible. The more seats they aimed for, the larger the number of risky districts they would have to create.

Yesterday, the Texans unveiled the first draft of their district map. This might or might not be the final map, but it does speak to what the mapmakers are thinking, strategically. Here's how The Washington Post has it; the current map is on the left and the new map is on the right:

The old map had very Republican districts
in the north and east, Democratic districts in and around the cities, and four competitive districts along the border. The new map
makes the entire state, except for the border districts and the cities, solid red. The four border districts would become deep blue,
light blue, light purple, and light red.

The big news is that the Texas Republicans apparently decided that trying to make both of the new seats red was not going to work out. So, they made one deep blue district, TX-37, in and around Austin (it went for Joe Biden by 58 points), and one red district, TX-38, outside of Houston (it went for Donald Trump by 18.3 points). They also made TX-15 more friendly to Republicans; it went for Biden by 1.5 points, but the new boundaries work out to Trump by 2.5. It is likely that TX-15 incumbent Vicente Gonzalez will relocate next door to TX-34, which is now very blue (Biden won by 15.3 points), and which is being vacated by the retiring Filemon Vela. So, TX-15 will likely have a non-incumbent member of each party running, and the new slant of the district gives the edge to the Republican.

This means that, all other things being equal, the Republicans will pick up two seats, one of the new seats, and the now-more-Republican-friendly TX-15. The current House delegation has 23 Republicans and 13 Democrats; the new one is likely to have 25 and 13. Delegations from 27-11 to 23-15 are within the realm of possibility, but that's about the extent of the variability. Beyond trying to put two more seats in the Republicans' column, the mapmakers otherwise made most of the incumbent Republicans safer, while cramming the Democrats into overwhelmingly blue areas. The phrase "snakes, tentacles and dragons" is being used to describe the crimes against cartography that were necessitated by the Republicans' approach.

Overall, the map plays it pretty safe, although the Texans did take two risks. The first is that they did not create any majority-Latino districts, and they generally watered down minority representation, often splitting populations that were previously in the same district over multiple districts. There will be lawsuits, and the Texans might just lose. The other risk, meanwhile, is that the mapmakers bet on the suburbs remaining fairly stable, party-identification wise. If they get a bunch bluer, then a sizable number of "safe" Republican districts will be in play. If that comes to pass, Texas might draw new maps mid-cycle; they've done it before.

That, then, is where Texas appears to be headed. Map-watchers will watch with interest for the new maps in Florida, Illinois, and New York, whenever they should drop. (Z)

Abbott Continues to Flounder

Another day, another less-than-stellar poll for Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX), this one from Quinnipiac. He's still underwater on approval rating, with 44% of respondents thinking he's doing a good job and 47% thinking he's not. Similarly, 46% think he should be reelected while 48% think he should find a new job. Texans are happy with the Governor's management of the economy (53% approve/39% disapprove), but they are less impressed with his border policy (43%/46%) and his pandemic management (46%/50%). The issue where he's taking a real beating, though, is abortion (37%/53%).

The good news for the governor, beyond the fact that there's a lot of time until the election, is that his two most prominent would-be opponents are not exactly capturing Lone Star State voters' fancy. Half of respondents said that Beto O'Rourke would not be a good governor, while only 33% said he would be good. Actor Matthew McConaughey, whose party affiliation and stance on the issues remain hazy, did even worse, at 49%/25%. Those are the sorts of numbers that could inspire some other Democrat to jump in, most likely a Latino like Rep. Henry Cuellar or Rep. Joaquin Castro.

One wonders if there might also be some Abbott fatigue by the time voters head to the polls next year. Texas only switched back to 4-year terms for its governors in 1972, so we're not talking about a huge sample size, but in that time only one governor has won a third term (Rick Perry). This is not so easy to poll for, but it's worth keeping in mind. (Z)

What Is Going on with Kyrsten Sinema? Follow the Money...

Perhaps the single-biggest mystery, as the various players haggle over the infrastructure bills, is exactly what Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) is doing. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is a fly in the ointment, too, but at least he comes from a red state, and one that would clearly benefit from a boatload of pork. Further, he is at least willing to share some details about what he does/does not want. Yes, those details seem to change on a regular basis, but at least he isn't a complete cipher.

Sinema, on the other hand, represents a purple state, and so doesn't have the excuse that she'd be booted out of office if she's not very careful. There are a number of Senators from states that are as swingy as hers (Mark Kelly, who is also in Arizona, Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, Raphael Warnock in Georgia, arguably Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada) and yet have remained loyal foot soldiers for Chuck Schumer. And all of them are up next year, while Sinema is not up until 2024. Further, she is being much more close-lipped than Manchin about exactly what her concerns are, and what it is that she wants.

A story from The New York Times may have an answer. Yesterday, she held a big-dollar fundraiser ($5,800/pop) for members of groups who oppose the $3.5 trillion bill. According to Salon, since she took office, Sinema has collected in excess of $1.5 million from groups that oppose the reconciliation package.

It could very well be, then, that there was no 3-D chess here, and that the real story is both simple and as old as politics itself: Sinema was bought and paid for. If so, then the question is how "honest" she is. And by that, we mean "honest" as defined by (wildly corrupt) 19th-century politician Simon Cameron: "An honest politician is one who, when he's bought, stays bought." Cameron died 33 years before the first woman served in the Senate, but the sentiment still holds.

It won't be long before we find out how intractable Sinema really is. If her sole focus is her 3-years-in-the-future reelection campaign, and the war chest she will have, that is pretty self-centered. Beyond that, however, we are mystified as to what she is thinking. The Democrats have no choice but to tolerate Manchin, since he's the only Democrat who can get elected from West Virginia. But if she betrays the Party, they are going to support—perhaps surreptitiously, perhaps openly—a heavy-duty primary challenger, either Katie Hobbs (if she loses the gubernatorial race next year) or Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ). In that case, having already lost the progressive vote, Sinema might well be an underdog to be renominated. And even if she survived, she would then have to make it through a none-too-easy general election campaign. In short, it sure looks to us like she's playing with fire. (Z & V)

What Is Going on With Chuck Grassley? Follow the Crazy...

The decision of 88-year-old Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) to run for another term is also a little bit of a head-scratcher. When the man was first elected to public office, the president was...Dwight D. Eisenhower, for goodness' sakes. It's not impossible to serve in the Senate as a nonagenarian; Strom Thurmond lingered until he was 100. However, the Senator surely wants to have some sort of retirement, right? And given how long he hemmed and hawed about entering the race, it strongly suggests that he wanted to bow out, but he was getting a lot of pressure to stay in.

Slate's Jim Newell, aided by a couple of inside sources, has put the pieces together. The Republicans have a sizable number of swingy seats they will vacate (North Carolina, Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania), and a few Democratic-held swingy seats they would like to contest (Arizona, New Hampshire, Nevada, Georgia). And they are scared of this basic dynamic, that has already played out in several places: (1) one or more crazy, possibly unelectable, Trumpers jump in; (2) Trump endorses one of them, and (3) the Republican Party either has to go to war against Trump, or else hope that a non-crazy Republican triumphs or that the crazy Trumper is still able to win. This has already played out in Georgia, probably making that seat a lost cause for the GOP, and is in serious danger of playing out in Ohio and Missouri, with some of the other states as possible additions to the list.

Anyhow, getting Grassley to run again locks that seat down, and spares the Republicans yet another potentially nasty primary, and yet another potentially nutty candidate who could possibly lose the seat. Even Trump himself would not challenge a seven-term U.S. senator. That said, Grassley may not want to hang around in Washington until they have to roll him into the Senate chamber (as happened with Thurmond). And his hope is to hand his seat off to his grandson, state Rep. Pat Grassley (R-IA). The Senator presumably has some sway with Gov. Kim Reynolds (R-IA), who gets to choose his replacement if he dies or resigns. One can envision an arrangement wherein Chuck serves until just after the 2024 election, then announces his health won't allow him to continue, and then—with Reynolds' assistance—hands off the seat to Pat. That would give Pat Grassley a couple of years to learn the ropes, to build his résumé, and to take control of grandpa's political network. Pat's only 38; if something like this does come to pass, and then he serves as long as Chuck, that Senate seat would be in the same family's hands for more than a century. It would be the senatorial version of the seat held by Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI), which has passed down through the members of that family for 88 years and counting. (Z)

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