If nothing else for media watchers there’s a fascinating dynamic developing over the last day or so in trying to define the US exit from Afghanistan. It’s not a new dynamic. In fact, it’s one I first saw a quarter century ago when DC’s establishment press got really, really upset that not only Bill Clinton but more importantly most of the country didn’t agree with their take on impeachment in 1998. Official DC was baffled when Democrats actually managed to pick up a few seats in the 1998 midterm that was entirely about impeachment. The specifics of the case are of course pretty radically different. But the dynamic of establishment DC press escalation is not. Politico’s morning newsletter this morning captures the dynamic. It starts quoting David Axelrod making clear that Biden messed up and has to admit he messed up but then notes that Biden didn’t get the message and said he had made the right decision. A sort of primal scream of “WTF, JOE BIDEN?!?!?!!?!” virtually bleeds through the copy.
After quoting Biden at length saying “I stand squarely behind my decision…” Politico jumps back in: “Of course, that’s not the issue. And Republicans — as well as many in the media — were quick to point that out …”
No, no, no, Joe Biden! That’s not right!
As I’ve made clear repeatedly, it’s not like this is a big win for Biden, at least in the near term. American public opinion is never going to like seeing the people we spent twenty years and a trillion dollars fighting getting comfy in the presidential palace after the US-backed President hopped the first plane out of Kabul. That stings no matter what the backstory. But there’s also little question that the very strong consensus among establishment DC press opinion-makers is not in line with the mood or opinion of most of the country.
At least half a dozen Politico articles in the last 36 hours have run with a snap Morning Consult poll showing that support for Biden’s withdrawal plan has fallen from 69% in May to 49% on Sunday, a whopping 20 point drop. This is hardly surprising: the concept of bringing everyone home is easier to support without pictures of the messy realities of the situation. The data point is listed in this morning’s Politico newsletter as well (“Here’s one bad sign for Biden:”). Not mentioned as far as I can tell in any of these write-ups is this: Even after a weekend of chaotic, ugly images and 48 hours of relentlessly negative news coverage, support and opposition to Biden’s withdrawal plan, according to this poll was 49% in favor and 37% opposed. The fact that the plan still has a net +12 approval even at such a bleak moment is surely a relevant part of the story.
There’s a pretty palpable reflex to keep the storyline in check and Biden is not helping.
That doesn’t mean most of the country is right of course. Political reporters resident in DC often see a lot of the details up close, which it takes a while for the rest of the country to absorb. Sometimes DC based observers get it and the rest of the country never does. But the capital, especially on foreign policy questions, with its connections to national security think tanks, trips to war zones, embed experiences and the like is its own subculture. When it settles on a narrative it can quickly escalate to echo-chamber proportions. Finding out not everyone is going along or agrees can be pretty upsetting and the result is seldom pretty. Of course, maybe it’s just Biden. Maybe the whole country is in line with the folks who run the leads at Politico and The Washington Post and Punchbowl News. But if so, even Biden’s non-compliance seems to be highly, highly upsetting.