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Would a Ukraine stalemate elect Trump president?

Then-President Trump outside the White House
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File
In this Jan. 19, 2019 file photo, then-President Trump speak to reporters before leaving the White House in Washington.

The Korean War. The Vietnam War. The Iranian hostage crisis. Surely Russian strongman Vladimir Putin and his Chinese allies have studied the three great stalemates of the post-World War II era. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Afghanistan. The tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Surely President Biden and our Western allies have studied the three highest profile Russian international debacles in recent times.

Now comes the Ukraine-Russia war. What happens if this conflict is stalemated on Nov. 5, 2024? That is the date of the next presidential election. Our top military experts say Russia can keep the war going until then. At the current rate of carnage, 400,000 Ukrainians will be dead or wounded. That estimate includes roughly 100,000 innocent civilians. The U.S. would have supplied Ukraine with $500 billion-worth of lethal weaponry and economic aid needed to keep fighting. Rebuilding the war-ravaged nation could cost over $1 trillion. Biden knows America will foot most of the bill.   

President Truman walked Biden’s path during Korea; President Johnson during Vietnam; President Carter during the Iranian hostage crisis. Like Biden, all three Democrats said these crises thousands of miles away challenged American resolve to defend our ideals.

All three sought renomination. But the Chinese wanted Truman to lose. The Russians wanted Johnson to lose. The ayatollah wanted Carter to lose. So, the enemy refused to end the conflict in each case. Truman and Johnson, seen by party leaders as sure winners, were punished by voters in the first presidential primary. Both quickly abandoned the race. Carter won a second presidential nomination but suffered the worst defeat for a Democratic incumbent in American history.     

Current polls suggest former President Trump will likely be the GOP nominee. Trump seems to be a fan of Putin.    

Seven incumbent presidents have grappled with such stalemated circumstances. 

The Civil War: Republican Abraham Lincoln’s war policy had produced only a bloody stalemate. Lincoln told associates his reelection hopes were lost. But two months before the vote, the Union Army started winning big. Lincoln won a second term.  

World War I: To win reelection, Democrat Woodrow Wilson ran on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” The past tense had been intended to fool voters. Wilson always intended to send our doughboys into that European cauldron. By the next presidential election, Americans found Wilson’s win to be a hollow victory. Democrats ran a Wilson admirer for president; he got clobbered.   

World War II: Had D-Day failed, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt feared he might lose the upcoming 1944 presidential election. But Ike’s boys took the Normandy beaches. Hitler’s fate now seemed sealed. FDR won an unprecedented fourth term.    

The Korean War: Despite Truman’s New Hampshire defeat, the Democratic Party ran a Truman ally and admirer for president. He lost in a huge Republican landslide. 

The Cuban Missile Crisis: President Kennedy told his brother he would never be reelected unless he bombed Cuba or got the Soviet Union to remove its missiles. He brilliantly forced Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev to dismantle the missiles. A year later, Khrushchev was forced to resign.

The Vietnam War I: As with Truman, the Democratic establishment backed LBJ and war policy for renomination. But less than half of New Hampshire primary voters voted to support the stalemated war policy. After LBJ dropped out, party leaders insisted on nominating Hubert Humphrey, the loyal vice president. He lost

Vietnam II: President Nixon announced “peace was at hand” shortly before reelection day. He won the biggest landslide in history.  

Iranian hostages: Carter managed to win renomination despite a stalemate in resolving an act of war against American citizens under international law. Iran’s leaders knew they needed to free the hostages. But they stalled negotiations. Carter lost. As his Republican successor took the oath of office, the ayatollah released the hostages.   

9/11: President George W. Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction to win approval for his Iraq war. Bush eked out the narrowest win for any sitting GOP president.

Ukraine-Russia war: Ukraine has one-sixth the population of the U.S. during the Vietnam War. On a per capita basis, Ukraine has already suffered more dead and wounded in one year than the U.S. did in its eight years of direct armed intervention in Vietnam. 

We are right to help Ukraine as we helped our allies in other conflicts. But “help” is not a policy. It is an idealistic concept. War, however, is a cold collecting endeavor. Good intentions are often the first casualty. American history is clear: We don’t want our country to be seen as a loser.     

“In war, there is no substitute for victory,” declared General of the Army Douglas MacArthur. Americans rebel when they see themselves as losers. 

History tells us that should America get bogged down in a Ukrainian stalemate, Biden will lose to his GOP challenger — that is, if he manages to be renominated. 

Paul Goldman, a Richmond, Va. attorney, is a former chair of the Democratic Party of Virginia.

Tags 2024 presidential election Civil War Cuban Missile Crisis Donald Trump Franklin Delano Roosevelt Iran hostage crisis Joe Biden Korean War Nikita Khrushchev Russia Russia-Ukraine war Ukraine United States Vietnam war Vladimir Putin Woodrow Wilson World War I World War II

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