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.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the West’s nearly unified reaction against it, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s escalation via strikes on civilian targets dominated the outrage cycle of Washington this week. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a rare and impassioned plea to Congress to aid his countrymen. All the while, President Joe Biden phoned leaders constantly from his office while aides rushed to plan next week’s visit to Europe to talk to NATO allies about the crisis.
But while polls show Ukraine dominating Americans’ interests right now, rivaling the economy and inflation, that doesn’t mean it will be a vote-driving issue in the fall, this week’s Back Booth guests argue.
On the left is Meredith Kelly, who got her start in Sen. Chuck Schumer’s communications shop. She became the top spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2018, when Democrats had their best year since the Watergate Babies came to Washington in 1974. And, like so many pros in D.C., she had a stint that didn’t quite go as planned: she was the top communications aide to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s failed presidential bid.
On the right is Matt Gorman, who also counts a couple disappointing White House hopefuls on his C.V.: Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney. He had a run with the National Republican Congressional Committee—the GOP’s House arm—before working on both Bush’s super PAC and the official campaign. He was Kelly’s counterpart in 2018 and, despite that, they’re a respectful duo. Both are now consultants.
This conversation has been lightly edited.
Philip Elliott: Welcome to TIME’s Back Booth, our week-long chat about the state of politics and the angles that pros like you are watching—and folks in the cheap seats like me might be missing.
Diving right in, we just got word that President Zelensky will hold a members-only briefing on Wednesday of this week. We’re seeing bipartisanship emerge in CODELS to the border. And the stop-gap spending bill included almost $14 billion in new spending to help Ukraine and Ukrainians. Is Congress now running the foreign policy of this country?
Matt Gorman: Ukraine is uniting almost everyone. Therefore, everyone wants to be involved.
Meredith Kelly: I do not think Congress is driving foreign policy instead of Biden. This all just seems strange to us, because we aren’t used to seeing Washington function and work towards the same goal. Biden used the State of the Union to lay out a plan on Ukraine, which polling shows is widely supported, and luckily some congressional Republicans have managed to also stand up to Putin with the Democrats, and these funding bills have passed.
Elliott: It wasn’t that long ago that I remember Congress largely deferring to the White House, even when there were strong disagreements. I recall incoming Speaker Pelosi declaring that, no, House Democrats wouldn’t cut off funding for the Iraq war in 2006.
Gorman: Iraq was different. To say it was unpopular is an understatement. Dems didn’t want to own it going into a year they expected to win back the House.
Elliott: Yet, we shouldn’t miss the fact that aid to Ukraine—and not COVID-19 money—made it to the President’s desk. Is Washington just over the pandemic? Can any more cash get across the finish line? The Biden Administration started at $30 billion and ended up with zero dollars. Is that the new reality? Or is unity on COVID gone?
Kelly: Right now, I do think people are “over” COVID—voters and politicians alike. We have seen this repeatedly: a new variant emerges, people panic and want help, we make it through (many deaths later) and people want to bury the pandemic in their memory, like the trauma that it is. I think you’ll see Democrats try again on getting some preventative funding passed for vaccines and treatments to get ahead of this cycle, but not everyone in Congress is good at looking downfield.
Gorman: [The Administration] didn’t sell it. They didn’t want to. They finally want to move on from COVID. Setting aside tens of billions as mask mandates go bye-bye and numbers go down is a stone-cold political loser.
Elliott: It’s Tuesday afternoon. If you’re advising the Biden Administration, do you send the President to Europe? It seems like this would be a risky move if there aren’t tangible ways to declare victory. It’s one thing to send the Cabinet or even the VP. But to fire up Air Force One without a deliverable seems to risk American prestige in a different way.
Gorman: They’ve done this before: when Biden went to the Hill for Build Back Better, then didn’t demand Dems support it. Basically popped in to say hello. Unless there’s something to announce or real news to be made—aside from just going there—I’m not sure of the point. He makes a speech. Violence continues. He looks inept and like a bystander. The visual becomes the violence continuing and Biden walking back by himself from Marine One.
Elliott: Zelensky just finished his quick speech to Congress. Does this move lawmakers to act? Or shame Biden into action? I was taken by his direct address to Biden in such a public way. One turn from name-and-shame to my mind.
Kelly: What you saw today was Zelensky advocating for his country in a time of crisis, and he was incredibly compelling. This might move Congress to take further action, and Biden to support the move. But it won’t be out of shame. It will be because Biden has decided that additional action doesn’t escalate our likelihood of direct conflict with Russia, and that it helps preserve democracy and protect our NATO allies.
To be clear, neither Matt nor I are foreign policy experts, but we do know politics. And Biden keeping us out of World War III with Russia is good policy and absolutely good politics—just like his withdrawal from Afghanistan. It’s all about keeping Americans safe, while still protecting our ideals. A difficult line he’s walking successfully right now.
Elliott: And your knowledge of politics is why we’re chatting. So, as we look at how this is playing in swing districts, what are each of you telling your candidates about how to talk about this? You know the House map better than almost anyone working today.
Gorman: This election will not be won or lost on Ukraine. Aside from the fact that both sides—in broad strokes—agree on the plan, inflation is the number-one issue that is affecting people’s lives. This isn’t 9/11. The enemy and the fight aren’t here in this country.
Kelly: I agree with Matt: the American people can genuinely care about what’s going on in Ukraine without it being a vote driver. The candidates in swing districts who can make the best case for themselves, and against their opponents, on kitchen-table issues and the cost of living, will be most successful. I’d put public safety closely behind that.
Elliott: I‘m seeing public safety start to get tinkered with in some local and even statewide races. I really wonder how much damage ‘defund the police’ did to Democrats? For Biden to ding it in his State of the Union tells you it’s not helpful.
Gorman: If you want to know how much damage it’s doing to Democrats, look at what Rep. Abigail Spanberger said after the 2018 elections. Look at the results of the 2019 municipal elections in Minneapolis and Seattle. The next fight is going to be going up against the DAs in big cities like George Gascon, Alvin Bragg, and Chesa Boudin who actively undermine laws on the books, as well as these so-called bail “reform” laws. You can arrest anyone and everyone, but if they’re released in a few hours, what’s it matter?
Kelly: The entire thing is a myth. Democrats do not want to defund the police—and neither do Dem primary voters, even in the most liberal cities, like NYC. Shocker: Twitter isn’t real life. But the GOP did catch Democrats off-guard with their false attacks in 2020 and the ones who survived have learned to be loud and clear about where we stand.
Elliott: This has been a great week. One last ask before we head into a (partly) warm and sunny weekend: right-size the stakes for the President’s trip to NATO next week.
Kelly: I think Biden’s trip next week is smart. He will look like the world leader that he is, and it puts him in a space where he has great expertise and experience. I’m sure the outcome will be consistent with what we’ve seen so far: he will walk the line between protecting NATO allies and democracy abroad, while keeping Americans far away from World War III with Russia. This is a sweet spot for Biden and I think he will keep having high approval [ratings] on Ukraine if he stays there.
Gorman: My comment from before still stands. He needs to make news.
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