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This era’s history will likely be written around a series poignant and difficult conversations that occurred in the West Wing the previous few days. Russia made goodIts threat to Invade neighboring Ukraine, President Joe Biden’s White House stressed to anyone willing to listen that such a Move from Moscow would be met with immediate condemnation—but NotU.S. troops on the field.
As the week unfolded, I chatted by email with two of Capitol Hill’s most seasoned insiders. The right Brendan BuckAs a counsellor to Paul Ryan (Speaker and VP nominee) and as John Boehner’s press secretary, he has been a successful entrepreneur. He is now a consultant and teaches a course on crisis and chaos at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
All along the aisle Rodell Mollineau is one of the Democratic Party’s most versatile communicators. A former aide to presidential candidates, Senators and a Governor, Mollineau also led one of the party’s best-funded super PACs. He was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s top spokesman. He is also now a strategist and advises a super PAC backing Biden’s Administration.
This conversation was lightly edited.
Philip Elliott: So, as we start Tuesday, I’ll go right at the big doubt in my mind: Does Joe Biden have the situation in Ukraine in his control at all? From my seat, it seems to be spiraling out of control, but I’m happy to be proven wrong. Does he have a plan to restart the board at this point? We’ve all seen incredible turnarounds in Washington, but this seems like a big pivot.
Brendan Buck: Nothing else matters at the moment. These crises have the ability to completely consume a presidency. As a political matter that can be helpful—people tend to back our Commander in Chief at times of crisis—or it could be a debacle like we saw with Afghanistan. It’s too early to say how this goes, but it’s going to dominate for a while. His SCOTUS is the only domestic topic that will gain traction in the next weeks. Pick.
Mollineau: It will consume all media and the presidency for the near future. Is this something Biden can control? He has managed to galvanize NATO—two weeks ago no one could imagine Germany would Scrap Nord Stream 2—laid out in stark terms the repercussions of a Russian invasion, and has been clear and direct in his public communication. There are no military implications. Other optionsHis control over the situation is limited if he sits at the table.
I have a question regarding the SCOTUS choice: Do the White House and Russia want Russia to be pushed off the front page with a Supreme Court nominee. Are there enough stories to go around?
Mollineau: I don’t know if SCOTUS bumps Ukraine off of the front page for more than a day or so, especially if Republicans decide they aren’t going to war over the pick.
Mollineau: On further reflection, one event could place Russia in the background: This supposed trucker ConjoyComing to DC. If it’s as effective as what happened in Canada…
I’m sorry, but I think either of your kids having a sneeze could roil D.C. streets. Our infrastructure here isn’t built for Any disruption. I feel like three trucks and a tweet could send us into a tailspin—way too easy for a handful of folks to declare victory.
Buck: This all comes back to the fact we have choose-your-own-adventure politics in this country. If you’re worried Western democracy is at risk, Ukraine coverage is there for you. To see images of the chaos in Washington’s suburbs, you don’t have to agree with COVID restrictions. But for a White House that needs to change its fortunes, the news is generally going to be about a foreign conflict that most people here don’t seem particularly interested in. Even if it goes well, there’s not much upside. And if it goes poorly, it just adds to the narrative that the President isn’t bringing back the competency and normalcy he promised.
I’m also growing impatient on a Supreme Court nomination. There’s no way it creeps into State of the Union week, is there?
Buck: It’s a tough call for SCOTUS. One could imagine wanting to have a nominated Friday in order to divert attention from Ukraine. But, man, that would sure seem like you’re not super-focused on the crisis over there at a critical moment.
Mollineau: It’s only Wednesday. There’s still a lot of this week left, so we will see, but it could be beneficial to wait until the Senate is back for amplification purposes. While I do not expect Democrats to go off-message in any way, it is nice that they are all available together.
Buck: Is this what Democrats are excited about? I’ve never gotten the sense your nominees get people’s juices flowing like it does for Rs.
Mollineau: The pick should be made and then the entire process must be followed. pro formaBreyer will be replaced by a liberal of similar views. But, if Republicans make a move for Black female nominees, it will be a significant business win on our side.
Buck: Seems like you’d be up for that!
So a ground war in Europe is happening and D.C. can’t seem to settle on a response. The color of the jersey you’re wearing seems to dictate whether the Administration’s response is sufficient or not. This feels far removed from those days following 9/11.
Mollineau: Unsurprisingly, I think the partisan nature of some—not all—Republicans’ reaction to Ukraine is unfair and quite ridiculous. Biden sanctioning Russia prior to yesterday’s attack wasn’t going to deter Putin’s invasion.
Which TV show will you be following next week? Obviously looking for a Supreme Court nominee—unless we get one Tomorrow as CNN is reading the tea leaves this late Thursday—and a State of the Union. You’re probably wondering what keeps you up at night.
Mollineau: I’m looking forward to the SOTU, although not expecting any moonshot aspirations that will change the trajectory of what Congress focuses on this year. Also, March 4’s job numbers should provide another opportunity for the Administration to demonstrate a rebounding economy.
Buck: This has been one of the least anticipated State of the Unions in decades, and I’m not sure Ukraine entirely changes that. It gives him an opportunity to show the type of leadership that people had expected from him. Of course, that will require him to hold together the Western alliance over the weekend and hope that Ukraine doesn’t fall. Otherwise, this should be the moment to turn the page entirely from the pandemic and declare the country back, but I just don’t get the sense Democrats in the White House have the nerve to say that.
Thank you, gentlemen. It’s now Friday afternoon and Ukraine seems to be as volatile as ever. It is worth noting that Brendan seems to be back at your old home. nomineeI am a cousin by marriage to Paul Ryan, your ex-boss. Your place will be mine. explanation of the Ryan connection to Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as our final word: “KBJ is Paul’s wife’s sister’s husband’s brother’s wife.” Bless you, D.C.