Appearing at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library on Wednesday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy argued that Joe Biden’s presidency was already a failure. “To be a successful president, you have to have the faith, the trust, and the confidence of the American public,” he said in conversation with radio host Hugh Hewitt. “I think over the last month, this president has lost that.”
McCarthy’s speech was touted as the opening salvo of the Republican Party’s midterm campaign, but it was largely just an extension of what the GOP has done for much of August: exploit the chaos in Kabul and the rapid fall of the Afghan government for domestic political gain. Nevertheless, one can see the rough outline of a midterm argument taking shape.
For most of 2021, the Republican Party struggled to articulate a coherent attack on the Biden administration. Instead, it filled the vacuum with reheated versions of Donald Trump’s greatest hits: that Biden was, incredibly, both senile and a criminal mastermind overseeing a vast empire of corruption. These narratives sprang straight from the right-wing fever swamps with no relation to reality; they failed to gain much traction as a result. Biden, meanwhile, went about doing more or less what he promised to do during the presidential campaign: distribute vaccines, pass some economic stimulus, sow some bipartisan unity on a big infrastructure deal, and govern with a minimum of fuss.
Now, with the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal in the news—alongside rising Covid-19 numbers—Republicans like McCarthy are arguing that Biden has lost the plot. He is not the steady hand on the tiller promised during the presidential campaign; he is a weak fool whom our enemies can exploit. This narrative relies on a certain amount of amnesia—specifically the willingness to forget the previous four years of President Donald Trump plunging U.S. foreign policy into complete chaos, alternating wildly and without foresight between bellicosity and coziness. But this is Trump’s GOP, so none of that matters. Even though Biden is carrying out a policy Trump proposed and which was supported by many in the Republican Party, Biden has failed in Afghanistan and as president.
It’s thin gruel. While the withdrawal has been a mess, the Republican critique depends on a flight of fancy: the notion that it could have been carried out without the carnage we have seen in recent weeks. This is a neat bit of magical thinking—the rapid collapse of the Afghan government was baked into the cake; preordained in extensive reporting that seems to have fallen by the wayside. Moreover, there are others in the GOP who clearly didn’t want to leave the country at all. There is no Republican policy on Afghanistan beyond hammering Biden with critiques of the withdrawal. What the GOP might do if it retakes Congress in 2022 isn’t clear because the party lacks a coherent policy on Afghanistan. Will it continue to do what Biden is doing or return to the prior regime of unsuccessfully reshaping the nation at tremendous expense for another two decades? No one seems to have thought that far ahead.
Republicans take some advantage from credulous media coverage that insists, with the peculiar tendency of the goldfish-brained Beltway press corps, that things could have turned out differently. It’s a study in denial and codependency. That the Afghan government collapsed as rapidly and spectacularly as it did should tell us a great deal about the state of the American occupation of Afghanistan: Two decades and trillions spent, and yet the government could only survive a few weeks without substantial American military support. This is clear and convincing evidence that the tragedy that has unfolded over the last few weeks is a bipartisan failure, years in the making. Few in the media have accepted that. Instead, they have parroted Republican talking points by suggesting that responsibility falls on the shoulders of Biden and Biden alone, rather than accept the reality that the war was a calamitous failure fathered by the last four presidential administrations (and midwifed by two decades of their own rotted coverage).
While many have suggested that the U.S. presence in the country has been benign—meaning that few American lives have been lost in the country in recent years—there has been an astonishingly small amount of coverage of the staggering cost borne by Afghan civilians. An American airstrike that killed several children last week should have been a stark reminder of that cost. It was as shameful as anything the president’s critics have purported Biden has done in recent weeks—and yet it has received comparably little notice in the mainstream press.
Republicans like McCarthy and Trump really have no business criticizing the American withdrawal, let alone using it as the foundation of the party’s midterm strategy. And yet the party is hanging a great deal on this flimsy hook. “We are going to be in a weaker position to defend ourselves, and a future generation will have less opportunity to solve the debt they inherited,” McCarthy said on Wednesday in a wan attempt to tie the national debt to Afghanistan. This, on its face, makes no sense, especially when you consider the trillions wasted in a war that has plodded on for 20 years. And yet these incoherent, hypocritical attacks may be working—Biden’s approval rating has fallen to its lowest ebb of his presidency. They will undoubtedly be trotted out again and again as the GOP tries to scratch out a midterm strategy from among the bogus choices at its disposal.