Ahead of 2020 midterms, GOP sees opening with chaos in Afghanistan

Washington — With the chaotic evacuation of thousands of Americans and at-risk Afghans from Kabul dominating the headlines after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, Republicans see a political opening to use the fallout from President Biden’s withdrawal to question his capabilities, in hopes of wresting control of Congress from Democrats. 

While foreign policy was not a top issue for voters in the last two elections, “the challenge for the Biden administration is it sets a narrative of competence, or lack thereof, and Americans don’t like losing. Nobody likes losing, but especially in a way where you’re humiliated,” Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster who has worked on various congressional campaigns, told CBS News.

The president has taken a hit from the chaos in Kabul. A CBS News poll released Sunday found 44% of Americans believe the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan has gone “very badly” — though 63% of Americans approve of the drawdown. Forty-seven percent, meanwhile, approve of Mr. Biden’s handling of the withdrawal, down from 60% in July.

The poll showed Mr. Biden’s overall job rating has fallen, too, with 50% of Americans saying they approve of his performance, an eight-point drop since July. 

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The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), which helps Republicans win seats in the House, seized on the decline in Mr. Biden’s ratings on his handling of the withdrawal and posted a video on social media featured footage of scores of Afghans rushing to get to the airport in Kabul after the collapse of the Afghan government. The clip knocked Biden for waiting several days to address the American people while the chaos unfolded, claiming his “incompetence & failure has made America less safe.”

The NRCC also capitalized on the president’s falling job approval ratings to slam Democrats more broadly. Spokesman Mike Berg said in a statement Tuesday that voters are “rejecting Democrats’ agenda of higher prices, higher crime, weak leadership and open voters.”  The NRCC has already announced Wednesday three sets of ads focusing on inflation, with the most recent targeting 15 incumbent Democrats 

Voters, he said, “want candidates’ or politicians’ rhetoric to match their records.”

Other GOP organizations were also quick to use the footage from Afghanistan to ding Mr. Biden. Citizens United and America First Policy Institute, run by former members of the Trump administration, ran ads on Facebook juxtaposing the president’s remarks about the withdrawal with video showing chaos in Kabul, as first reported by Axios. The ads featured an assertion from Mr. Biden made on July 8 that it was “highly unlikely” the Taliban would take over Afghanistan.

Several Republican congressional candidates are also highlighting the crisis in Afghanistan in sponsored posts on social media.

“This snowballs into other themes on the notion that in 2020, then-candidate Biden made the centerpiece of his campaign a return to normalcy. He projected himself as somebody who was going to be a leader on issues,” Matt Terrill, a Republican strategist and partner at Firehouse Strategies, told CBS News. “This is a huge blunder that members on both sides are calling him out on. It snowballs into other issues like leadership, the ability to manage and lead.”

Terrill said Mr. Biden’s handling of the drawdown could impact Senate races in Georgia and Arizona, where there are high populations of veterans or active-duty military and Democrats are attempting to hold on to their seats.

“The elections are going to be referendums on the incumbents, in particular this midterm,” Terrill said. “It’s about trust, it’s about confidence. It’s about Americans’ confidence in their leaders.”

The midterm elections are 15 months away, and the outcome will determine whether Democrats maintain control of Congress. In the Senate, which is evenly divided, Vice President Kamala Harris casts tie-breaking votes, giving Democrats a razor-thin edge. But in the House, Democrats also hold a tiny majority of just eight seats.

Focusing on the president’s handling of Afghanistan holds some peril for Republicans, though: their longtime support for the 20-year war there and attempts to use the chaos in Kabul to their advantage could force them to defend the years the U.S. spent there.

“This is a bipartisan albatross around the neck,” Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, told CBS News. “It’s very difficult for people to say they’re innocent of anything, and the blame game in this case is probably accurate, because whoever you point to is going to have some degree of blame. It’s a tough issue to use.”

And Sabato also pointed out that Mr. Biden has a substantial counterargument — that he can “reasonably say” he’s the first president in two decades to follow through with a pledge to end the war in Afghanistan. Sabato noted the president makes a valid point that leaving was always going to be difficult, as Mr. Biden said Sunday.

“It was always going to be messy,” Sabato said of the evacuations of Americans and Afghan allies from Kabul. “They clearly could’ve done a better job in planning, I don’t think they deny that, but is that enough for people to determine their vote in a midterm election when other big issues are on the table? I don’t think so.”

The drawdown in Afghanistan, he continued, “will not be a footnote, but a relatively short chapter of the campaign.” Instead, Sabato predicted many Americans will be interested in the state of the coronavirus pandemic and the economy, come November 2022.

While Bolger agreed the situation in Afghanistan won’t be the focus of next year’s contests, it will be “one piece of a mosaic” about Mr. Biden’s handling of crises and a “messaging arc” that the White House has to get under control.

“He’s fumbling the ball on Afghanistan, COVID, the border, inflation,” he said. “So the whole picture that’s being painted just seven months into his presidency is not a good looking picture, and once it goes off the tracks, it’s hard to get it back on the track.”