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Hi there, here’s what you need to know for the week of February 25, 2022, in 9 minutes.

THIS WEEK INSIDE THE BIG TENT:


① Republicans are divided over the question "Vladimir Putin, good or bad?!" but all of them are happy to exploit the consequences of Putin's war for partisan advantage 

② Democrats can in theory expose and capitalize on the fact that their opponents are dominated by quislings, but they won't even confront GOP fascism in its purely domestic manifestations

③ The stakes of whether Democrats ultimately engage on these terms just rose considerably; because if Republicans win coming elections, we can't count on them to side with the good guys in a battle between democracy and fascism that could easily spill into global war

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PUTIN THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE

I want to be sensitive as I write this to the fact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the outbreak of war in Europe, is not principally an American story; and to the extent that America is a significant player on the periphery of these developments, it’s not principally a story about American politics. 

But this is a newsletter about American politics, and the disposition of our domestic, partisan hostilities will have a real bearing on the course of these historic events. So please read what follows in that spirit. The purpose isn’t to downplay the depravity of what Vladimir Putin has done, or the awfulness of what he’s visiting on the people of Ukraine.  

① TWO SIDES OF THE BLAME COIN

Strip away the layers of bluster and dishonesty and second-order consequences, and it turns out the events of this week mostly unite Democrats, and divide Republicans. Putin’s decision to invade a neighboring democracy for the sin of being a democracy, for seeking in a self-determined way to become more like the open societies to its west, validates criticisms—of Putin as a threat to global order, of the dangers of democratic backsliding in the west—that have been central to liberal geopolitics for many years. Most particularly since Putin linked arms with Donald Trump to subvert the 2016 election.

Likewise, most Democrats think President Biden has grappled with the unfolding crisis in an adept, admirable way, methodically stripping away Russian pretexts and surprise tactics, leaving Putin a choice between de-escalating and charging ahead naked to the world. 

Republicans, by contrast, are torn rather horrifyingly between a pro-Putin faction of corrupt and/or ideologically fascistic Trump loyalists, and a nominally anti-Putin faction, and the glue holding them together is reflexive partisan demagoguery. Putin is brilliant, and playing Biden like a drum; Putin is brilliant but this magnificent development wouldn’t have happened if Trump were president; Putin is a tyrant, but his tyranny is only possible because Biden is "weak"; Putin is a tyrant, but Biden should be weaker towards him and save his firepower for the southern border. It’s incoherent but coherence isn’t the point. Exploiting war against an ally to hurt Democrats is the point. This is their m.o. in just about every circumstance—whatever the facts on the ground, unite through hyperpartisanship. 

That kind of nauseating opportunism is often effective on its own terms, but in this case it leaves Republicans exposed, at least in theory if not in fact. The pro-Putinists have aligned the GOP with an act of world-historic evil; the anti-Putinists have tried to weaken that association, while reserving most of their rhetorical firepower for the leader of the world’s democracies (Biden) whose approach may well yet be vindicated; and the two factions have banded together with each other in the hope that Americans will blame the party in power for what are ultimately the inescapable consequences of events beyond America’s control. The problem with that hope is that Republicans don’t have the only say in determining how American voters interpret these events; the problem for us is it’s unclear how hard Democrats will try to rally them.

② GOP-PORTUNITY KNOCKS

This week, Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), who chairs the GOP’s Senate-elections committee, released an agenda for the party ahead of the November midterms, and it’s an insane hodgepodge of toxic, fascistic ideas, from finishing the border wall and naming it after Donald Trump to treating half of Americans as “socialists” and socialists as foreign enemies. 

Read it for yourself if you don’t believe me. And when you do, you’ll have a newfound appreciation for Mitch McConnell’s ambition that Republicans would conceal their agenda until after they won a majority. You don’t say something so imperious, so comically patronizing to voters, unless you’ve made the determination that leveling with them would be even more detrimental. Scott’s agenda for the GOP is an all-purpose gift to Democrats, just as McConnell feared it would be.

But there’s something revelatory about the way Democrats pounced on it. 

It is true and important that the new GOP agenda reprises Mitt Romney’s discrediting old line about how the “47 percent” of Americans who pay no federal income taxes are moochers, and insists they pay some income tax. In practice, that would constitute a huge tax increase on the bottom half of the American income distribution–poor people, and seniors. And it’s altogether proper for Democrats to incorporate this revelation into their midterm campaigns. But if all you knew about what’s in the GOP agenda is what Democrats told you, you’d think it was a bland budget document outlining an unpopular fiscal policy, rather than the frothing authoritarian playbook that it is. The response encapsulates the Democrats’ stubborn insistence on trying to will politics into the exclusive realm of meat-and-potatoes issues by refusing to engage aggressively on any other front. 

And the irony is that the very nature of the clash over the Scott/GOP agenda is that it’s a real-time demonstration of how narrow the Democratic leadership’s conception of politics is. The non-fiscal flanks of the Republican platform are also terribly unpopular, but that didn’t deter Scott from throwing them into the mix, because he knows that they won’t harm Republicans through some organic process. They can only harm Republicans to the extent that Democrats are determined to make Republican fascism a salient issue in campaigns and day-to-day politics, and so far it appears they are not.

Democrats have internalized a schema in which backlash to social policy emerges from the grassroots on its own and attaches itself naturally to one party or another. Thus, to avoid association with unpopular social issues, Democrats simply need to either maintain radio silence or else actively disavow them. Thus this conspicuous new effort to “inoculate the most vulnerable Democrats from the culture wars” by putting their names on an inoffensive legislative agenda filled with kitchen-table policies that poll well.   

Scott, by contrast, knows that the words “defund the police” and “critical race theory” appear in zero Democratic policy documents, but have become albatrosses for any number of Democrats through sheer Republican determination and dishonesty. He made the calculated gamble that Democrats would shrink from those issues—can’t engage on the Trump border wall if you want to shrink from the culture war!—and so far it’s paying off. Republicans will get all the benefits of red meat, and incur none of the risks.

But if Democrats won’t confront fascism in its purely domestic manifestations, why would they do it vis-a-vis the GOP and Vladimir Putin?

③ GOP QUIS, HOT SHOT

This is why I worry that Republican efforts to delink the war in Europe from its material consequences and lay them at Biden’s feet will succeed. There’s no law of physics holding that higher gas prices must always hurt the incumbent; the historical record is replete with reminders that in extraordinary times—during wars and pandemics—citizens will rally behind their leaders, and make sacrifices for a greater good.   

But for that to happen now, Democrats will have to do the kind of demagoguing and line-drawing that simply terrifies them. 

In his White House remarks on Thursday, Biden said, “I know this is hard and that Americans are already hurting. I will do everything in my power to limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump. This is critical to me. But this aggression cannot go unanswered. If it did, the consequences for America would be much worse. America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.” It’s a worthy mix of empathy and higher calling, and we as individuals can rise to it by reminding the people in our lives who get taken in by right-wing propaganda that the “prices at the gas pump” are a consequence of a foreign dictator’s quest for domination, not of anything elected Democrats did. 

But these appeals will have to punctuate a constant din of deception, and the only thing that can really drown that out is a rhetorical counteroffensive to remind the public that Republicans have chosen to side with that dictator. 

It can matter, even though it’s not a kitchen-table appeal, that the leader of the GOP has a famously corrupt relationship with the president of Russia, and applauds his Hitler-like attempt to annex a neighboring democracy as “genius.” It’s worth reminding people that as Hitler conquered much of Europe, the leader of the Republican Party didn’t side with him, nor did he simply sit back and salivate quietly, imagining that the consequences of the war would help him in the election. We can say, explicitly, honestly, that today’s Republican Party fails by comparison even that basic test of patriotism. Want Americans to disbelieve Republicans when they blame Biden for the consequences of Putin’s actions? Tell them that Republicans are under his thumb—remind them of this, with the huge archive of Trump’s words and deeds, every day. Instead of stopping short at, “I will do everything in my power to limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump,” draw on the same kind of anticipatory information tactics that so effectively stripped Putin bare: Because they’ve sided with Putin, Republicans in Congress will try to convince you that higher gas prices are Democrats' fault—don’t believe them.

These kinds of jingoistic accusations understandably make liberals queasy; among other things, they're scarred by the experience of being on the other end of them after 9/11. But we are not at war and not looking to become mired in one. The claiming of the high ground of patriotism isn’t to silence good-faith critics who might disagree at the margin with how aggressive or passive they’ve perceived Biden to be; what warrants it is that Republicans can’t even clear the bar of grounding their responses to this watershed moment in the national interest. Half of them have sided with Putin outright, the other half just kinda hope they can convince enough people that Biden is at fault for the whole thing to gain a fleeting partisan advantage from it. And the upshot is that no one with a stake in the war can have much confidence that the American position on a Russian invasion of Europe is truly an American position, rather than a Democratic position, effective for however long the party can hold on to power. 

Extracting a price for this betrayal is a matter of necessity. And yet the last time Democrats had an opportunity to wage a defining fight against Trump over his corrupt relationship with Putin, including a criminal effort to obstruct the investigation of it, the Democratic response—I shit you not—was to close the chapter and turn to the new chapter of health care.

I sometimes think these old guard Democrats and front-line members have it in their heads that a “culture-war fight” looks something like Dems passing laws to make all public restrooms gender neutral, or to require the teaching of critical race theory. That in a bare-knuckled fight over nothing material but how the public perceives the parties, Democrats will always lose. But really it’s more about drawing Republican corruption and bigotry, and the fascist temptation overtaking the party, out into the light, and asking the public to reject it.

One way to do that, for instance, would be to attack Republicans over their hideously unpopular book bans—to not simply neutralize but upend their CRT propaganda and censorship blitz. Another, more straightforward way is to simply observe that the party that tried to overturn our election here in the U.S. is now in the pocket of the tyrant who’s trying to snuff out democracy in Ukraine by force. 

Short of that, the Bernie Sanders approach here makes clear who’s on whose side, while driving a wedge between Trump and the nominally anti-Putin Republicans in Congress. 

The question of whether Democrats can unite behind a message like this brings us full circle to the idea that the ultimate resolution of these partisan fights will have direct bearing on the real issue at hand—the war Putin launched in Europe. 

Republicans want to exploit the conditions Putin’s war will create for their own partisan gain; Democrats should be just as determined to exploit Republican opportunism over the war for their partisan purposes. The urgency to deny them power has just grown significantly, because if they win we can’t count on them to be on the side of global democracy in a new war against fascism that just turned hot.

For all the GOP’s Lindberghian tendencies at the dawn of World War II, it’s good that the Republican Party didn’t nominate the actual Charles Lindbergh to lead the party when the dominos in Europe began to fall. The U.S. doesn’t have much control over whether Putin’s war spirals into World War III, but the question of whether the U.S. will be on the side of good or evil if it does is entirely ours to answer.

I’m off next week, so there will be no Big Tent on March 4.

On the new Senate GOP agenda, Perry Bacon makes a key point: “if you are part of a movement committed to not addressing racial inequality, the next logical step is to eliminate evidence of that inequality.”

Russian state media is just rebroadcasting uncut clips pro-Putin Republicans like Tucker Carlson and Mike Pompeo. They make it so easy!

It turns out that Glenn Youngkin probably didn’t win the Virginia governorship solely because he was more aligned with the punditocracy on their main obsession at the moment–and now his approvals are under water

Speaking of reluctance to confront Trump: The two prosecutors leading the Manhattan D.A.’s investigation of his criminal financial practices abruptly quit this week, reportedly because District Attorney Alvin Bragg is reluctant to indict him for political reasons. 

The official GOP is trying to draw business toward Donald Trump’s new social media startup, which is itself a total botch job

The French spell Vladimir Putin “Vladimir POUTINE” because, the French pronunciation of "Putin" sounds too much like the French word for “whore,” and, cowards to the end, they think “Vladimir Gravy Fries” is less offensive than “Vladimir Whore.”

Hard agree.

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