Welcome to The Back Booth, a weekend edition of The D.C. Brief. Here each Saturday, TIME’s politics newsletter will host a conversation between political professionals on the right and the left, pulling back the curtain on the conversations taking place in Washington when the tape stops rolling. Subscribe to The D.C. Brief here.
It’s tough to know how history will judge any given moment, but in Washington we know when we’re living through one of those weeks that a future Jon Meacham will probe for meaning.
This week certainly seemed like one, as the United States imposed a ban on Russian oil, the White House sought to assure allies that this wasn’t the start of World War III, and markets chased anything passing for solid ground. Plus, the Coke machine left Moscow.
As the week progressed, I chatted by email with two pros who know the field better than anyone. From the right, Doug Heye lent his expertise to the unfolding events, occasionally from a work trip in Mexico City and sometimes from some of the best restaurant seats in this hemisphere. He’s a former Republican National Committee spokesman, a one-time top aide to Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and a veteran of the George W. Bush Administration.
Across the aisle, Jess McIntosh offered her own perspective. A veteran of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, EMILY’s List and Al Franken’s orbit, the SiriusXM host has seen the expansion—and contraction—of the Democratic Party over the last two decades.
The conversation has been lightly edited.
Philip Elliott: Welcome, friends, to TIME’s Back Booth. Let’s dive right into this week. Ukraine is the open wound in geopolitics, a government-funding bill is equally as open, and a SCOTUS nominee hangs out there, too. I have zero confidence where my mood will be come Friday. What are you watching this Monday morning?
Doug Heye: Obviously, we start with Ukraine. How far does Russia advance in the coming days and how does that affect supply routes, both over land and sea, through Ukraine? How does the international community respond and adapt, especially as oil prices continue to rise? Do Europe and NATO remain united?
Jess McIntosh: In addition to trying to figure out what is Russian disinformation and what is a “humanitarian corridor” in Ukraine, I’m watching the protests within Russia and wondering how much they grow now that the services that make life tolerable—like Netflix and social media—are pausing service to the country.
Heye: Domestically, does Biden have a real bounce in the polls or an artificial one? And do voters who approved of Biden’s State of the Union speech maintain that approval the next time they fill up their tank or go to the grocery store? I don’t expect the Supreme Court nomination to make much news over the coming days, and, indeed, the pick should be rather uncontroversial.
McIntosh: I’m also watching the massive student protests and growing national attention (thank you Kate McKinnon!) finally start to focus on Florida’s insane and dangerous “Don’t Say Gay” bill. With the outcry over Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s non-statement today, you have to imagine boycotts are not far behind. Ron DeSantis will have to juggle riling up his most extreme base with protecting Florida tourism, which should be a really obvious choice, but it’s Ron DeSantis.
Heye: Kate McKinnon was hilarious.
Elliott: Kate McKinnon is a national treasure and a generous interview.
The images coming out of Russia from protests are disturbing, to put it mildly. But I do wonder how much of that is spread to neighbors. I mean, even TikTok in Russia is shut down. Replicating a North Korea media environment seems impossible, but I also never thought Visa, MasterCard, and AmEx would remove themselves from Russia’s economy, either. How sustainable is the media blackout in Russia, and how sustainable is the corporate response to that enormous—if deeply corrupt—part of the global economy? At some point, do they look around and remember that pure capitalism is amoral—not immoral, but amoral?
McIntosh: A media blackout isn’t even sustainable in North Korea! Russians will continue to get information from outside the country, and they’ll continue to find a way to communicate with relatives in Ukraine and elsewhere. But life is going to get demonstrably harder for the average Russian citizen—and markedly harder for your average Russian oligarch. Considering Putin has already wildly overestimated how supportive his own people are of his war, it’s going to get a lot more uncomfortable for him as well.
Elliott: But what happens when American cultural touchstones like McDonald’s are gone? There’s a cultural diplomacy component to this that I don’t fully appreciate.
Also, is Doug doing this from Mexico City?
Heye: He is!
Clearly companies are making significant decisions to cease operations in Russia and, similar to Jess’ point on Florida, companies that remain in Russia could feel increasing pressure. The promise of Coca-Cola diplomacy was that Western products would bring Western values. Given how we’ve seen companies and prominent individuals react—or not react—to the treatment of Uyghurs and events in Hong Kong, that promise is in doubt. Or, do some markets count more than others?
McIntosh: Yes! It’s been really stunning to watch the discrepancy play out loud here. Obviously some markets matter more, some refugees matter more, some war crimes matter more—the people calling out the global white supremacy at play in how we understand and cover conflict are absolutely correct.
Elliott: One final question directed to Doug: Is the invasion of Ukraine breaking through in Mexico? Or is this a U.S.-focused story that barely breaks through there? Asking you to put on your Tom Friedman cap: What did your driver between the airport and hotel talk about?
Heye: It’s definitely breaking through here. You see some people on the streets wearing pro-Ukraine shirts and conversations about migrants clearly take a new direction now. I was in a conversation today with someone who works on job placement for migrants, who said the issue of Ukrainian refugees is too new, but will definitely have an impact.
Also, I’ve never read Tom Friedman.
McIntosh: I have also never read Tom Friedman. Unity!
Heye: Dudes who can pull off the T-shirt and blazer combo: Zack Morris. That’s the list.
McIntosh: Man, we agree again!
Elliott: My apologies to Friedman’s fashion choices of a jacket with T-shirt. And we will have to leave this here. You’ve been great, and I look forward to seeing you both when you’re back in D.C.
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