Democrats worry Zelensky offered GOP key talking point

When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to members of Congress on Wednesday and pointedly highlighted President Biden’s role in helping to stop the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, some Democrats worried that he was handing Republicans a new talking point.

Despite there being an uncommon bipartisanship in Washington for wanting to help the Ukrainians, Republicans have tried for months to drive a narrative of Biden being a weak leader, and Zelensky’s words, even Democrats acknowledge, could become fodder in the midterm election season.

“I think it’s a very real possibility,” said one Democratic strategist. “I know we keep saying we’re doing everything we can, but clearly there’s a lot more we could be doing, and I’m not just talking about sending in troops.”

“You could easily see Republicans making hay out of it,” the strategist added.

During the final moments of his virtual speech to lawmakers on Wednesday, Zelensky switched to English for emphasis when speaking directly to Biden: “You are the leader of the nation, of your great nation. I wish you to be the leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.” 

Since the start of the Russian invasion last month, Democrats and Republicans have been more united on Ukraine than any other issue in recent memory. During Biden’s State of the Union address, for example, support for the war-torn country was one of the few issues that received rousing applause from both sides of the aisle.

But some Republicans have tried to cast Biden as weak in his response to the crisis and continued to do so after Zelensky’s address to lawmakers in the Capitol.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) accused Biden of having a “Bambi’s baby brother moment,” while Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, “The Biden administration’s timidity in the face of this evil needs to end.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said following the Ukrainian president’s address that Biden needed to “step up his game,” a day after singling out what he dubbed the administration’s “hesitancy and weakness” in the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Putin has not pulled his punches as a thank you to President Biden for pulling his punches,” McConnell said in remarks on the Senate floor Tuesday. 

The conservative-leaning New York Post also ran a headline: “In lesson for Biden, Zelensky shows what true leadership looks like.”

Republican strategist John Feehery, a contributor to The Hill, said Zelensky’s comments do dovetail with the Republican narrative forming around Biden on the issue of Russia-Ukraine. 

“I think there will be a lot of Republicans who ask for the White House to be more forceful based on Zelensky’s comments,” Feehery said. “The president hasn’t been very forceful and throughout this whole thing he had decent intelligence and they didn’t do anything about it. He said we’re going to do sanctions and they kind of sucked. Everything is underwhelming.” 

“Republicans will jump on this,” Feehery continued. “I think Biden is, in many ways, congratulating himself for his restraint and the aid he’s given, but it’s cold comfort to the Ukrainians.”

Feehery added that “it isn’t a closed question” about how Republicans handle Biden’s perceived weakness on Ukraine in the months ahead. 

“Usually in wartime, the country comes together and the president gets a boost, and I don’t think it’s happening this time,” he said. “The country has come together but Biden hasn’t gotten a boost, and I think it’s because he’s leading from behind.”

Still, Biden has gotten relatively strong public support for his handling of the Ukraine situation and particularly his responses to Russia such as imposing sanctions. 

A Pew Research Center survey released earlier this week found that 47 percent of Americans polled approve of the Biden administration’s handling of the Russian invasion, while 39 percent disapprove and 13 percent are unsure. A whopping 85 percent of surveyed Americans support maintaining strict economic sanctions on Russia, the survey found. 

Biden responded to Zelensky’s address Wednesday by announcing a robust shipment of military assistance to Ukraine, including drones, small arms,and anti-aircraft systems, and he said his administration is helping Ukraine acquire longer range air defense systems. 

Meanwhile, the administration has thus far resisted calls to send to Soviet-made fighter jets to Ukraine due to the possibility of it escalating the conflict, and the U.S. and NATO have rejected Zelensky’s pleas for a no-fly zone for similar reasons. 

“How President Biden makes decisions is through the prism of our own national security,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters during a briefing Wednesday. “And as we’ve said before, a no-fly zone would require implementation, it would require us potentially shooting down Russian planes, NATO shooting down Russian planes. And we are not interested in getting into World War III.” 

Republicans have also had to grapple with divisions in their party over how to handle Putin, after four years during which former President Trump talked warmly of the Russian leader. Many GOP lawmakers have pushed back on Trump’s more recent comments about Putin being “smart” and “savvy.” Trump was also impeached in 2019 for withholding military aid from Ukraine as he sought an investigation into Biden and his son.

Some say Republicans need to tread lightly in their criticisms of Biden. 

“I think Republicans need to walk a careful line between showing Putin that our country is united while criticizing Biden’s approach,” added Alex Conant, a Republican strategist. “That’s why most of the criticism has been very muted to date.”

Republican strategist Doug Heye said it’s “possible” Zelensky’s words about Biden “could come up in political ads.” 

But he said it’s dependent on two things: “Events in Ukraine and what Congress is willing to do.” 

So far, he said, in the early days of the war, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has only come up in one ad in a North Carolina Senate GOP primary and is focused on a candidate’s words about Putin. 

Others in the GOP say it’s unlikely that Republicans delve into that territory.  

“One never ceases to be amazed at the imagination of attack ads, but I doubt Zelensky’s clarion call for U.S. assistance will redound to Biden’s disadvantage,” said Richard Fontaine, the chief executive officer at the Center for a New American Security who served as a foreign policy adviser to the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “The reality is that the administration has done a great deal for Ukraine and is prepared to do even more. 

“Anyone casting the response as somehow weak should specify what they’d do instead — and the benefits and risks that alternative proposals would generate,” Fontaine added. “Otherwise it’s just empty criticism.”

Tags Donald Trump Jen Psaki Joe Biden John Cornyn John Kennedy John McCain Mitch McConnell Vladimir Putin

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