Why This Year’s U.S. Elections Won’t Hinge on Ukraine

The Back Booth will be hosting 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 Click 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. Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, made an impassioned appeal to Congress for help. 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. In 2018, Democrats enjoyed their greatest year since 1974, when the Watergate Babies arrived in Washington. Kelly was the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s top spokesperson. 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.

Matt Gorman (right) is a former White House candidate who has also included two disappointing White House hopefuls in his C.V. – Jeb Bush or 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 men are now consultants.

This conversation was 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.

Let’s dive in: We have just heard that President Zelensky will be holding a members-only meeting ShortingOn Wednesday this week. We’re seeing bipartisanship emergeCODELS TO THE CROSS. The stop-gap spending bill IncludedNew spending of almost $14 billion to aid Ukraine and Ukrainians. Does Congress need to act now? RunningWhat is the country’s foreign policy?

Matt Gorman: Ukraine has almost everybody united. Everyone wants to get involved.

Meredith Kelly says that I don’t believe Congress drives foreign policy. 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 for Ukraine to outline a plan, which was widely supported by polling. However, some Republicans in congress have also been brave enough to oppose Putin, and the funding bills passed.

Elliott: It wasn’t that long ago that I remember Congress largely deferring to the White House, even when there were strong disagreements. Pelosi is the incoming speaker. declaring that, no, House Democrats wouldn’t cut off funding for the Iraq war in 2006.

Gorman said that Iraq was different. You can’t deny that it was controversial. 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 It is not COVID-19 money—made it to the President’s desk. Washington is just OverWhat is the panademic? Is there any other way? CashTo get to the end? Biden administration started with $30 billion but ended up having zero dollars. Does this sound like the new reality? Is unity in COVID dead?

Kelly: Right now, I do think people are “over” COVID—voters and politicians alike. This is what we have witnessed repeatedly. A new virus emerges and people are desperate for help. We make it (many more deaths later), and then people wish to forget about the tragedy and write it off as a memory. 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. Finally, they want to leave COVID behind. It is an utter political loss to set aside the tens billions in mask mandates that are canceled and go away,

Elliott: It’s Tuesday afternoon. ​​If you’re advising the Biden Administration, do you SendThe President of the United States 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. However, to start Air Force One without any deliverable would be a risk to American prestige.

Gorman: They’ve done this before: when Biden went to the Hill for Build Back Better, then didn’t demand Dems support it. The idea was to simply say hello. 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 gives a speech. He continues to commit violence. Biden looks ignorant and as if he is a mere observer. This is Biden, walking alone from Marine One.

Elliott: Zelensky just gave a quick speech before Congress. This is what it looks like MoveAre lawmakers required to take action? Or ShameBiden, are you ready to take action? It was so public that he addressed Biden directly. I was able to take a turn away from shame and name.

Kelly: Today’s witness was Zelensky defending his country during a crisis. He was compelling. It might inspire Congress to act further and Biden may support it. 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.

While Matt and I may not be experts on foreign policy, we are both very familiar with 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. As we examine the situation in swing districts, how are you telling each other about your views on how to discuss this with them? The House map is something you know better than anyone else.

Gorman: The election in Ukraine will not be won. 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. Swing district candidates who are able to make the most of their arguments for themselves (and against their rivals) on matters such as cost-of-living and food preparation will win. 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. Check out the results from the 2019 municipal election 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: It’s all 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. The GOP’s false attacks on 2020 caught Democrats by surprise, and those who survived learned how to speak out loudly about their position.

Elliott: Thank you for a wonderful 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. It will make him look the same world leader as he is and put him in a position where he has great experience and expertise. 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. Biden is in a good spot, and I expect he will maintain high approval. [ratings]If he remains in Ukraine, he will be able to vote for Ukraine.

Gorman: I stand by my previous comments. He must make the news.

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