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Throughout the fall of 2006, Democrats were relentless with their critique of the Bush Administration’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan abroad and the handling of Hurricane Katrina at home. The public was very weary and struggling with a national anxiety, and President George W. Bush was stuck polling in the mid-30s. The result of Bush’s final at-bat with voters in the midterms that year was a resounding “thumping” for his party, to borrow the President’s own word.
The post-9/11 wars became a political albatross for Republicans from coast to coast, and electoral upsets were as common as they were surprising. In fact, so off-guard was then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean about the routing Republicans took in New Hampshire in 2006 that he couldn’t even muster the name of the candidate who ousted a GOP incumbent considered to be safe. “Anyone remember who I’m talking about?” Dean said the day after Carol Shea-Porter’s upset. “The First District of New Hampshire? I can’t think of the last part of the hyphenated name. … Carole?”
So when Nancy Pelosi prepared to claim the Speakership in early 2007 for the first time, she didn’t want war planning—especially the execution of complicated and toxic wars—to wrap its ugly arms around Democrats. She shrewdly rejected demands from the Left flank to cut off wartime funding for the troops, as some had demanded. The liberal blogosphere—this was, after all, pre-Twitter—raged that “Pelosi has thrown in the towel.” She similarly shutdown talk of impeaching Bush, who was by then a lame-duck and on his way home to Texas. She knew how to read both her caucus and the mood of the country. The environment was not ripe to try such a gambit, no matter what the loudest voices inside her tent were shouting. Sixteen years ago, Pelosi understood the wisdom of keeping a foreign war’s execution at an arm’s length when an unpopular Republican was in the White House.
Now, once again, America has a President whose polling leaves little to crow about, who has unified control of Washington, and who has a Congress with strong feelings about his execution of foreign policy. But this time, sending U.S. support to the war in Ukraine is popular. (Or at least, popular unless American troops are deployed.) It’s a different calculus for Pelosi and Democrats now, and Congress is ready to weigh in on how the President should respond to conflict abroad more forcefully than it did during the Bush years.
The risks for Congress and the White House, however, are still manifest.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and attacks on civilians have galvanized Americans in a way Fallujah never did. Surveys find Americans rallying behind Ukraine with the same levels of affinity as they have for Germany and France. A Reuters poll finds more than 60% of Americans saying they’re willing to pay more at the pump to stand in solidarity with the besieged Ukrainian democracy. There are calls from disparate and bipartisan corners of Congress to get Ukraine more airpower (largely ignoring the fact that Moscow has said any country passing MiGs to Kyiv will be treated as a wartime belligerent).
So it is against this backdrop that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will meet with U.S. lawmakers, via video, on Wednesday. Zelensky has already had one Zoom meeting with members of Congress, during which he implored lawmakers to step up with cash and caches of weapons. Lawmakers did so last week, adding $3.5 billion in military spending, $4 billion more in humanitarian help, and another $3 billion to send U.S. troops to Europe.
Zelensky will likely ask for more assistance when he speaks to lawmakers tomorrow morning. The U.S. still hasn’t imposed the no-fly zone protection that he wants. U.S. officials have been consistent in telling reporters and Zelensky alike that the no-fly zone wouldn’t solve the country’s problems, perhaps increasing tensions and escalating the situation instead. But with cities buried in rubble and airstrikes unrelenting, any shred of help is worth seeking if you’re the Ukrainian leader.
Zelensky has proven an inspiring leader, effectively rallying the world to Ukraine’s cause. He has no shortage of fans in Congress, so much so that there might as well be a Zelensky Caucus that may be the lone place of unanimity. And, unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, the American electorate really wants these images of violence coming out of Ukraine to stop. The change has prompted uncomfortable conversations about which foreign lives matter more to Americans, and the images of Europeans besieged have moved the opinion polling more than seeing Iraqi and Afghan mothers fleeing shelling. It’s morally indefensible but politically unignorable.
Which sets up this uncomfortable dynamic: does Congress find a way to supersede the White House in formulating foreign policy? Bipartisan delegations of lawmakers have already been visiting Poland’s border with Ukraine to see the refugee crisis for themselves. The calls with foreign leaders once reserved for Foreign Relations Committee Chairs now include rank-and-file members. And Congress, which since 9/11 has been a background player in matters of war and peace, is ready to flex for Zelensky—perhaps with more enthusiasm than a tempered Biden, who has ruled out sending troops to defend Kyiv.
Congress, seldom known for restraint or long-term considerations, may want to go further, perhaps setting up an open conflict between the Democratic Capitol and the Democrats in the White House, heading into a midterm election fighting among themselves over a seemingly popular effort to help Ukrainians.
But, one veteran observer of politics rightly warns: the half-life of this glow may be short-lived, and may burn out before Election Day. The dynamics of 2006 may replay, with an overseas effort turning sour and predicating a total sweep for the minority party. It doesn’t matter if the Republicans on the Hill are pushing just as hard to increase support to Ukraine as the Democrats; they aren’t in charge. And, in that, there’s a lesson for Washington right now: what is popular in one moment may be toxic in short order, especially if Americans who against all fact expect wars to be tidy finally learn that such conflicts are seldom so neat. Remember that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq also were popular at their start until both parties finally did what liberals accused Pelosi of doing in 2006; throwing in the towel ended up being the least bad option available. Friction between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue only complicates the calculation.
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Write to Philip Elliott at firstname.lastname@example.org