It’s a paradox of Joe Biden’s presidency. He won the Democratic nomination to avoid a politically problematic lurch to the left. He has actively distanced himself from his party’s least popular elements along the progressive flank. He has long-standing ties to the New Democrats — a faction of relative centrists that Bill Clinton successfully harnessed to reverse the party’s losses in the 1980s. Yet Biden has presided over the return of most of the Democratic political liabilities from the left that Clinton was thought to have fixed.
Trump may even benefit politically from some of what’s happening. A Harvard/Harris poll found that a large majority don’t believe Putin would have ordered the invasion of Ukraine under Trump.
The latest is the idea that Democrats are weak in the face of foreign threats, including Russia now that the Kremlin has invaded Ukraine on Biden’s watch. Most voters don’t approve of Biden’s response to the Russian invasion, according to an NPR/Ipsos survey, with an NBC News poll finding that 7 in 10 have low confidence in Biden on this issue. The reason, by a 20-point margin in an Associated Press/NORC poll: Biden hasn’t been tough enough on Moscow.
The headlines of today are ripped straight from the Cold War, even though it has been over for more than three decades: The American public is fearful of Russian nuclear weapons. It is worried about Russia’s invading a NATO country. If such an incursion were to occur, it wants Biden to use the military to respond.
As recently as when Biden was vice president under Barack Obama, this kind of political posture seemed like a distant memory. When 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said Russia was the top geopolitical foe, Obama quipped that the 1980s had called and wanted its foreign policy back. Now Romney is taking a victory lap, and even Democrats are saying he was right.
Democrats are trying valiantly to point the finger back at former President Donald Trump, whose alleged Russia connections were the subject of extensive investigations for most of his term and whose criticism of NATO and complimentary comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin are a matter of record. But Americans aren’t buying it.
In fact, Trump may even benefit politically from some of what’s happening. A Harvard/Harris poll found that a large majority don’t believe Putin would have ordered the invasion of Ukraine under Trump. Asked in a HarrisX poll whose policies were more to blame for the war, 58 percent picked Biden and only 42 percent said Trump. Among independents, a critical voting bloc in this year’s midterm elections, the split was 66 percent Biden to 34 percent Trump.
Unfortunately for Biden, this isn’t the only international conflict that has tarnished his standing with voters, as majorities disapprove of the job he is doing on foreign policy more broadly. His overall job approval rating first began its descent after the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.
And Biden’s Russia struggles come as other long-buried political problems associated with a Democratic Party that leans too far left have risen from the dead. Inflation is a top issue for voters and a drag on Biden’s numbers as consumer prices — particularly at the gas pump — skyrocket. That’s a problem that sank President Jimmy Carter, one of the most liberal presidents of the last half-century, and it is viewed by voters now as an even bigger concern than Russia.
Crime has also once again become a national worry. It was among a cluster of issues that hurt Democrats in 2020, and it looks to feature prominently in the midterms. Lenient prosecutors and judges were a major campaign theme against Democrats during the country’s last crime wave, and that topic has returned. It’s another area where Biden’s approval ratings are low, as the president hasn’t entirely succeeded in keeping his party’s brand from being colored by Democrats who would chop police budgets.
In this similar political environment of international tensions, inflation, lines at gas stations and violent crime, Democrats declined from the default majority party in the 1960s to the gang who couldn’t win a presidential election in the 1980s, losing at least 40 states three consecutive times. By the mid-1990s, their congressional majorities were gone, too.
Democrats were seen as too weak to keep the country safe from foreign threats abroad or criminals at home. They weren’t trusted to manage the economy. Clinton had to run as a different kind of Democrat, cutting far toward the center, to break the cycle of lost presidential elections — though foreign policy remained a problem area for the party until the war in Iraq started to go badly for Republicans in George W. Bush’s second term.
The foreign policy slippage should be especially concerning for Democrats. It threatens to revive factions of the Republican Party discredited by the country’s failures in Iraq and Afghanistan — even the neoconservatives most widely blamed for the policies.
Of course, the failed policies of the neoconservatives should give Republicans pause about going too hawkish on nuclear-armed Russia. And so should they for rank-and-file GOP voters whose opinions have recently changed to be more in favor of intervention abroad. (The same applies to Biden, too.)
But the current political moment has given Republicans, who have had great difficulty adapting to the changes in political conditions since President Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, a fallback strategy. Under Biden, much of the Reagan playbook has become viable again, and it gives the GOP a message it can likely win elections with today. That should make Democrats very afraid.