Republican patience with supporting Ukraine is running out

Robert Bolt’s masterpiece, A Man For All Seasons, tells the story of the doomed, heroic, and very human Sir Thomas More. The moral is that it easy to believe in things when they are popular; far harder, and far more important to do so, when they mean that you will risk something.

I’m not going to be beheaded, as was More. But I do bear an unfashionable message.

Almost the whole of the British elite supports the trendy, hawkish view regarding the war in Ukraine: that Volodymyr Zelensky must be entirely supported and given whatever he wishes. After over a dozen meetings with every sector of the British elite recently, this uniformity of belief was by far my firm’s most striking takeaway. There is literally no debate as to whether this is the wise course.

One common assumption was that Ukraine was self-evidently winning the war, and that American support for Kiev would be endless. The only time I saw any of my British friends squirm was when I suggested that both these lazy suppositions are deeply questionable.

First, the war is devolving into a stalemate that is likely to go on for the next year. Second, as Boris Johnson’s visit to Washington, Republican patience with endless, extensive support for what amounts to (at best) a second-order prioritym is wearing very thin.

These views are not popular. That doesn’t mean they are wrong.

Winter has predictably seen the war grind into stalemate; now two questions may well determine the outcome of the contest.

Will Russian domestic alarm at a lack of victory, now that Vladimir Putin has had to call up reservists in a draft, doom his adventurism? Or will the US, which is overwhelmingly keeping the lights on in Ukraine, experience war weariness of its own?

The realist danger ought to be obvious: Russia, seeing Ukraine as a first-order interest (as America would Mexico), will always care more about the war in Ukraine than the US.

Come the spring, it is clear the Russians will throw new masses of men, numbering between 180,000-300,000 new conscripts, onto the offensive. Although little more than cannon fodder, the new troops are likely by simple numbers to make some gains, if not decisively overrun the country.

Then it will be the Ukrainians turn. Bolstered by more advanced weaponry from its NATO allies, including a number of Leopard 2 tanks from Germany and Europe and Abrams tanks from the US, Kyiv will likely blunt the Russian drive and undertake an offensive of their own, which in turn will grind to a halt given Russian numerical superiority.

If all this holds, we will be back where we are now at the end of the year, in an increasingly attritional war with masses of casualties with little to show for the horrendous sacrifices. It is then, a year on from now, that war fatigue on both sides will become the overriding question.

Little-covered in the British press is that American support, is already fraying. The Republicans, never fashionable at the best of times, has come to the deeply unpopular view that support for Zelensky must be limited, conditional, and even come to an end over time. While almost no-one in the GOP is cheerleading for Putin, they is not mindlessly in the tank for Kiev either.

January polling in the Washington Post makes this clear: a comfortable majority of Democrats supports Joe Biden’s Wilsonian line, but for the first time a bare majority of Republicans (with the trend line decisively heading downwards) is against giving further aid. This bombshell has received far too little exposure in London.

There are three broad factors that together explain this steady erosion in political support.

First, years of frustration at allied free-riding in terms of defence spending are finally bearing fruit.

While for Washington Ukraine is demonstrably a second- or even third-order priority, it is accepted that this is not true in Europe, much closer to the fighting and more affected by the outcome.

Yet, once again, the US seems to care more about European security than do the Europeans. In terms of total aid, America has committed an eye-watering $120 billion to Ukraine, more than the rest of the world put together.

Europe’s collective GDP is roughly the same as America’s, yet 70-plus years after the founding of NATO we find that the US is still cross-subsidizing Europe’s safety net by paying a disproportionate share of the common defence.

Enough, an increasing number of Republicans think, is enough. If the war matters as much as European hawks think, it is time for them to put their money where their mouth is – or simply stop having bold, expensive postures that American taxpayers must pay for.

Second, conveniently forgotten in all the ringing Times editorials, is that fact that America has a debilitating set of domestic problems itself that simply aren’t being addressed. The pandemic made plain that America’s schools are a mess; doing away with testing (as the teacher’s unions advocatine) won’t this glaringly issue any less real.

America’s kids don’t know nearly enough; its infrastructure is falling apart. The opioid crisis (with fentanyl killing more than 70,000 in 2021) is as grossly underreported at home and abroad as it is dangerous to the nation. Border policy is non-existent.

American elites don’t discuss these vital issues enough; practically no foreign commentary dwells on them at all. Were they the centre of media attention the idea that the US ought, or at least might, choose to re-focus on its domestic problems would not seem so outlandish.

Third, and the reason for my personal flagging support, is the geopolitical argument against over-committing to Ukraine. The strategic future of the world is undoubtedly in the Indo-Pacific, location of much of both the world’s future economic growth and its future political risk as China and the US vie for dominance.

For that reason, my firm spends roughly 70 percent of our time on the region. It is safe to say that the Biden administration, in terms of both money and focus, spends far less than they should, and the obvious reason is the war.

The idea that America can do everything is false. With US debt standing at an unfathomable 31 trillion dollars, doubling defence spending to avoid difficult foreign policy decisions is just magical thinking.

It should be obvious that the US should be focusing like a laser-beam on assembling the broadest possible alliance in the Indo-Pacific, training with them and arming them to the teeth, in order to make the Chinese hesitate in making a lunge at Taiwan.

Only by so doing, and (hopefully) peacefully halting China’s adventurous designs can global peace and prosperity be guaranteed for the next generation.

It should go without saying, but it does not, that the strategic outcome in the Indo-Pacific is overwhelmingly more important than the fate of Ukraine. Yet, nonsensically, the Biden administration is diverting weapons caches promised to Taipei to Kyiv.

For Wilsonian utopians, strategic choices never have to be made; every problem is equal, and all can be solved. But even the US economy has limits, as does the patience of the American people. The public support necessary for a vast new defence spending programme isn’t there.

A year from now, it is a certainty that for all these sound realist reasons, Republican support for the war will be lower than it is today. With the election will be on the horizon, whoever is the GOP nominee (likely Ron DeSantis or Donald Trump) will likely share the party’s view.

Such a shift in the US position will come as a nasty surprise to many. But they will have nobody to blame but themselves for not seeing it coming.

This piece was originally published in Conservative Home

A story for the next US presidential election

Back in the 2000s, during the month-long book tour for our best-selling “The Godfather Doctrine,” my co-author and great friend Wess Mitchell came upon a hypothesis as to why our book had done so unexpectedly well. Since time began, Wess hypothesized, human beings have primarily learned about life through the telling of stories.

For example, the first two great works of Western civilization were, respectively, about a war, “The Iliad,” and a guy just trying to make it home, “The Odyssey.” Our book, a parable about US foreign policy told through the story of the never-bettered American film “The Godfather,” was merely following in this well-established human way of thinking.

Following in this Homeric tradition, I would like to tell you a story about the 2024 US presidential election that goes a long way toward predicting what is likely to happen and — more importantly — why it is going to happen.

Let us start our tale with the crucial fact that the present front-runners for the two party nominations are Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the two least-popular leaders since Gallup polling began in 1935. A Nov. 14 Morning Consult poll made this very clear. A decisive 65 percent of those polled did not want Biden to run for reelection, while the exact same number said the same of Trump’s efforts.

So, both parties have a succession crisis. The first to solve theirs and pivot away from the deep unpopularity of their present standard-bearer is likely to win the next election. That is, if the Democrats can get rid of Biden, they are likely to beat Trump, just as a GOP without Trump is likely to best the aging president.

Paradoxically, the midterms have made it more likely that the Republicans and not the Democrats are on their way to sorting out their succession problem. This is because the Democrats did a good deal better than was expected, having the fourth-best midterm result for a new presidency in the past 100 years. Narrowly losing the House as was predicted, the Democrats surprisingly managed to retain the Senate, even picking up a seat to hold a narrow 51-49 advantage. Why did the Democrats, despite Biden’s dismal approval rating of 43 percent, manage to do so well?

Rather than the 2022 vote serving as a traditional referendum on the new presidency, as was expected to be the case, instead the Democrats adroitly pitched it as a choice between Trump and Biden, ground they could win on.

Trump also helped build their case in a number of ways. First, he hand-picked terrible, flawed Senate candidates like Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and the egregious Herschel Walker in Georgia. Second, Trump hoarded the money his political action committee had raised, selfishly saving it for himself rather than helping the GOP’s hard-pressed candidates. Third, Trump’s acolytes had to agree to push his pathetic conspiracy theory about the 2020 vote being stolen from him; these election deniers were punished across the board.

In many ways, the emergence of Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is the answer to the GOP’s basic succession crisis; he provides the party with Trumpism (which is popular nationally) without Trump (who is not). On a night of Republican disappointments, DeSantis won reelection by a whopping 19.5 percent. He achieved this political feat by governing effectively and taking on the leftist mainstream media over social issues (such as so-called wokeism and immigration) and economic matters (keeping Florida open during much of the pandemic). As a man with a successful record of putting the Trumpist agenda into actual effect, DeSantis is the bright new hope of the party.

The governor ticks a lot of boxes. Graduating from Yale and Harvard Law School, DeSantis is a serious thinker about the issues. Serving in Iraq, he won the Bronze Star Medal, while Trump skipped Vietnam because of bone spurs. The governor also has a telegenic wife and young family.

Along with all these pluses, he retains faith in the Trumpist agenda, being broadly for deregulation, America not fighting stupid wars, an anti-woke social stance and a patriotic, interest-based foreign policy, with the populist concerns of his working-class constituents at the center of his efforts. Indeed, this represents Trumpism without Trump, which must be the GOP formula for future success.

On the other side of the ledger, Biden, incredibly, feels the 2022 midterms vindicate his often-disastrous first years in office, despite the fact that 65 percent to 70 percent of the country blame him for the rampant inflation that has caused the present cost-of-living crisis. Encouraged, the president is more likely than ever to run for reelection and no modern president has lost his party’s nomination once he has entered the race. Doomed, the Democrats seem to be shackled to the fading Biden.

The moral of our story, then, is simple and profound, like the best of literature. Based on the midterm outcome, it is far more likely that Biden will run again and ruinously gain his party’s nomination, while Trump can be thwarted from attaining the GOP nod. As such, the Republicans are in a far better position to solve their succession crisis than are the Democrats. The White House in 2024 is theirs for the taking.

This piece was originally published in Arab News.

The midterm map says America will turn right

The pioneering 20th-century Kenyan aviator Beryl Markham put it well in explaining the intellectual usefulness of maps: “A map says to you, ‘Read me carefully, follow me closely, doubt me not … I am the earth in the palm of your hand’.” And for all the fog obscuring the outcome of the 2022 US midterm elections, we have a clear map to guide us to the outcome if we simply decide to use it.

There is a lot we can already glean. First, historically, the party out of power two years after a new president is sworn in almost always does well, as “buyers’ remorse” sets in regarding the new administration. The simple fact is that there have been only four midterm elections out of 38 since 1870 in which the party holding the White House either gained seats in the House of Representatives or had a net loss of five seats or fewer — the very limited number that would cost the Democrats their current majority. This historical navigation point alone means the House is likely to shift to Republican control.

Second, the phrase most associated with the legendary former Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill — “All politics is local” — has been proved almost entirely wrong over the past generation; in fact, it’s national, not local. The single biggest determinant of House outcomes is the sitting president’s approval ratings. Again, as we have said before, a president with an overall approval rating above 60 percent can dictate to Congress his wishes; one with an approval rating below 40 percent is trying to squash rumors that he is dead.

According to RealClearPolitics’ most recent polling, the hapless Joe Biden is limping along at 43 percent, a number that does not augur well for Democratic hopes in the House. Adding these two navigation points together on our intellectual map, look for the Democrats to lose between 25 and 35 seats in the House, and for the Republicans to take control.

Third, while House races have become nationalized over the past generation, Senate races remain stubbornly idiosyncratic, with outcomes instead based on both the specific character of the candidates and the nature of the state itself. With a third of all Senate seats up for election in 2022, the Democrats also have the luck of the draw this time around. They are not defending any Senate seats in states carried by Donald Trump in 2020. Further, the Republicans must defend 20 seats, limiting their chances to make large gains, while this cycle the Democrats are defending only 14 seats. For these highly specific reasons, Democratic losses in the Senate will be fewer than in the House.

However, fourth, the primary issues the campaign has been fought on — the intellectual terrain of the political contest — have greatly favored the Republicans. November’s latest CNN poll finds the economy the overwhelming issue for most voters, with a majority 51 percent saying it is the most important policy area affecting them. Abortion — after the Supreme Court struck down Roe vs Wade and returned decision-making on this contentious social issue to the states — comes a distant second at just 15 percent.

A September NBC poll confirms our navigational data point, listing the top four issues as the Economy, the cost of living, abortion, and crime. Republicans have a decisive 23-point advantage over Democrats in terms of handling crime and 19 percent on the economy.

Voters overwhelmingly blame the Biden administration for the worst surge of inflation in over 40 years, after it ruinously spent trillions of dollars on social programs even as the economy quickly returned to pre-pandemic levels. Too much money chasing too few goods has been the largest factor leading to the price spike, in which adjustable mortgage rates topped 7 percent and the price of staples such as beef and gas skyrocketed. Grocery prices overall have increased by an uncomfortable 13 percent since Biden’s inauguration.

The economy, the cost-of-living crisis and the surge in inflation are voters’ greatest concerns, and the White House is who they blame. RealClearPolitics June polling shows a dominant 64 percent of those surveyed disapprove of how the president is handling the economy. This is simply killing Democratic chances to retain the 50-50 Senate.

Fifth, we know the states to watch on election night. Ohio, North Carolina, and Wisconsin are all narrowly trending Republican; buck that trend in any of these and the Democrats have a real chance to hold the upper chamber. However, New Hampshire, Arizona, and Pennsylvania have all been narrowly trending Democratic. A loss in any of these and it is going to be a long night for Joe Biden’s party. Control of the Senate may once again come down to Georgia, as it did in 2020. There, if any candidate fails to obtain 50 percent of the vote, there will be a run-off in a month’s time to determine the seat, and quite possibly the Senate majority.

Given our intellectual map, however, the midterm outcome is surprisingly clear. My firm’s final prediction is for the Republican Party to take the House by 25-35 seats, and the Senate more narrowly by a one to three-seat margin. The GOP is going to be back.

This piece was originally published in Arab news.

US Republicans challenge the foreign policy ‘blob’

In my experience, the widely quoted adage about America’s capital — “You want a friend in Washington? Get a dog” — makes a fair point; imagine a city populated entirely by high school student council presidents. Nevertheless, in my glory days in D.C. I managed to buck the odds and acquire a number of great colleagues who I have remained close to over the 16 years I have run my political risk firm.

I’ve just checked in with them over a marathon week, with 16 intensive meetings in five days. This concentrated process is by far the best way to take a mental snapshot of what is really going on in what remains the most important country in the world.

There are two major political risk takeaways from the week. Point one is that the current Western unity over the Ukraine war is misleading. It was pointed out to me by many that there are three strands of Western thinking on Russia, and they do not strategically agree.

First, the Eastern Europeans and the UK (for rather odd and specific reasons) want to roll back all Russian gains at almost any cost. But it is also true that of the three strands, those advocating total rollback are geopolitically the weakest.

Second, the Biden administration finds itself in a balancing position, writing Ukraine a series of blank checks, with the US having no specific war aims of its own but working hard to limit the conflict. The Biden team have a studied aversion to the no-fly zones that Western hawks are screaming for, as they could lead to a direct confrontation between superpower America and great power Russia — a breach of the “Kennedy Rules” that nuclear powers do not ever directly fight one another.

Third, European Council on Foreign Relations polling makes clear that Western European publics increasingly favor “peace” (the war stopping now so as to stem the looming tsunami of the cost-of-living crisis and rampant inflation brought on by Europe’s feckless energy policy) over “justice” (Ukraine regaining every yard of its territory, but at great economic cost to the continent).

In other words, there is trouble ahead for the Western alliance over the war, as strategically these fundamental differences become apparent to even the dimmest analyst.

Beyond the coming possible schisms in Western unity over the war, there was a second, vastly underreported takeaway from my fascinating trip — namely the coming rejuvenation of the Republican Party in foreign policy terms.

In Washington I met with every branch of foreign policy opinion formers for the GOP. They included the Heritage Foundation, the largest think tank in the world and the most important on the right in the US; the Congressional Research Service, Congress’s own in-house think tank; the over-arching and increasingly powerful Stand Together Alliance, which unites the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian wings of the GOP around a realist orientation; and two venerable establishment pillars, the Center for the National Interest and the Atlantic Council. I also had private meetings with senior foreign policy grandees. All the above testified to the fact that there is a revolt catching fire in the party to do away with its longstanding links to the foreign policy “blob,” the disastrous, overly interventionist elite that gave us the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

It is far less likely the Republican Party will remain linked to the discredited foreign policy establishment if it comes back to power in 2024, as it is embracing a new, more skeptical and realist orientation, having under Trump jettisoned from positions of power in the party the fantasist, hyper-interventionist neo-conservatives who futilely and fatally wanted to impose democracy around the world — nation building at the point of a gun.

In essence, this new realist alliance between Jeffersonians (the Stand Together Alliance) and Jacksonians (Heritage) is fused around a more realist orientation, whereby the GOP is no longer content to serve as the junior interventionist member of the Washington foreign policy establishment, in lockstep with the liberal Wilsonian hawks who perpetually dominate the Democratic Party. Instead, they believe the US should focus its strategic engagement in regions where its primary interests are at stake, as in the Indo-Pacific, the source of most of the world’s coming economic growth and much of its political risk peril.

For them, Ukraine is a sideshow, and a terribly expensive one at that — obscuring America’s necessary pivot to Asia. It should be supported, but with clear limits to that support, as the US cannot care more about European security than Europeans do. At present America is responsible for about 70 percent of the military wherewithal heading to Kyiv, while Germany does as little as possible. While Biden is spending tens of billions of dollars on secondary-interest Ukraine, what should be the obvious, overriding focus on the Indo-Pacific is being lost. What I learned in my fascinating week in D.C. is that at last the karmic wheel is turning, as the Republican Party forsakes its disastrous adherence to the foreign policy blob and rediscovers its precious realist heritage.

This piece was originally published in Arab News.

Biden’s political comeback much less than meets the eye

Washington insiders read polls like the rest of the country looks at baseball scores: Relentlessly, daily, obsessively. A politician’s “numbers” are akin to understanding his political health. A basic rule of thumb is that any president with an approval rating over 60 percent can tell Congress what to do and be pretty sure to get what he wants, so great is his sway with the public. On the other hand, a president with a rating below 40 percent must spend his time trying to squelch rumors that he is dead.

So, on its surface, it is notable that President Joe Biden’s recent numbers tell of his survival from a near-death political experience. Following months of intraparty Democratic bickering, the White House’s signature “Build Back Better” initiative — a multitrillion-dollar bill stuffed with progressive wish-list items like universal preschool and free community college — fell victim to both Senate moderates (such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona) and the alarming resurrection of inflation. In the wake of this ignominious defeat, Biden had only a 40 percent approval rating in RealClearPolitics’ aggregation of presidential polls. The president found himself on the cliff-edge of continuing relevance.

Recently, however, things have begun to look up politically for the White House, as Biden’s numbers have slowly but clearly edged upward to about 43 percent approval; far from great, but trending away from the writing off of his presidency. Two seminal factors explain the marginal improvement: The abatement of COVID-19 and the advent of the Ukraine war.

In the case of the first, after two grim years of lockdown, death and economic stultification, at last things seem to be returning to something approaching normal, with the children back in school (if still too often masked, in defiance of “the science”), parents back at work and commerce picking up. The fourth quarter of 2021 saw US gross domestic product increase 0.5 percent, 1.7 percent quarter-on-quarter, and the American economy enjoy its best year as a whole since 1984, growing at a robust 5.7 percent. While these impressive numbers are contextually a reaction to the deep dive the US economy took just before as a result of the pandemic, they do signal a very welcome return to economic normality.

At the same time, the Biden of old has reemerged as a result of the Ukraine crisis. Measured, moderate and clear-spoken, the president has made it obvious that, while he supports the hard-pressed Zelensky government in Kyiv, he is sensibly not prepared to risk widening the conflict by adopting a dangerous no-fly zone over Ukraine. Following his lead, and despite Volodymyr Zelensky’s impassioned pleas, NATO has unanimously followed suit.

Biden’s pro-Ukrainian tilt, then, has its limits. While genuine, it is secondary for the president to containing a possible escalation of the war. Beyond being strategically reasonable, Biden’s position is where most Americans are regarding the conflict. The war has reminded US voters of the “safe pair of hands” they thought they were electing in the first place, before the Biden White House came to be hijacked by the left wing of the Democratic Party.

But it is far too early for White House staffers to be quaffing champagne regarding Biden’s political comeback, as a number of overexcitable commentators have done. For one thing, a three-point “bounce,” while better than a drop, hardly amounts to a sea change in how the American public views the president. A March 15 Wall Street Journal poll confirms this. Only 29 percent of US voters think the president will run for reelection, with a dominant 52 percent believing Biden will call it quits after only one term in office.

If Biden were to run and win again, he would be 82 at the time of his second inauguration, by far the oldest man to have held the most demanding job in the world. Given his increasingly stiff gait, often rambling answers to questions and abject forgetfulness, it is unkind but true to note the president has lost a step over the past few years. The world seems dangerous, complicated and demanding. A large majority of the American people do not think Biden is up to a second term.

Beyond the personal, one issue above all has reared its ugly head, stifling the prospects for Biden’s comeback. As this column has long worried about, it is now increasingly clear that the beast of inflation — long cowed by the resolute actions of former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and President Ronald Reagan — has slipped its restraints. Inflation increased to an eye-popping 7.9 percent year-on-year in February, the highest level in fully 40 years. Food, rent and fuel costs were dangerously climbing even before the Russian war has made an energy price shock a reality.

As the world looks increasingly like the dreary 1970s — stuck in a stagflation of low growth, high inflation and decreased living standards — Biden is sure to be blamed for this, just as Jimmy Carter was in 1980. Biden’s uptick in the polls is a blip, not a salvation. Instead, longer-range forces are bearing down on the White House, making it likely that, one way or the other, Biden is merely a one-term president.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

Why Biden’s domestic agenda is already dead

The modern American presidency, like water, always runs along the path of least resistance. Once a president’s window to enact domestic legislation closes — as it invariably does at some point in his first term — he then shifts course, setting his sights on foreign policy. Constitutionally, this amounts to far more fertile ground, as America’s founding document gives the executive branch a great deal more power to conduct foreign policy than it does domestic policy.

Historically, this process has happened even to presidents with significant domestic achievements to their name. For all the brilliant overall luster of his presidency, it was during Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office that the lion’s share of the “New Deal” programs to combat the Great Depression were enacted. Likewise, following his landslide victory in 1964, Lyndon Johnson’s seismic civil rights legislation (and the formulation of his “Great Society” domestic programs) came early on in his term. The same holds true on the right. Ronald Reagan’s landmark tax cuts came shortly after his victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980, but before the midterms of 1982. More recently, Barack Obama’s signature healthcare legislation, “Obamacare,” came about after his famous electoral win in 2008 and was the first and last major piece of domestic legislation he got over the line.

So, in this larger historical sense, what is presently happening to Joe Biden comfortably fits into the overall historical narrative of the modern American presidency. Presidents achieve their domestic legislative successes early and then — once that political avenue has been halted — like water, move along the path of least resistance to focus on foreign affairs. Nevertheless, the speed of Biden’s domestic legislative decline is as striking as it is unusual.

Following his electoral victory in 2020, Biden rode a year-long wave of domestic political success, enacting both the trillion-dollar COVID-19 emergency legislation and his bipartisan infrastructure plans. However, the even more expensive progressive wish-list bill, the Build Back Better plan, fell afoul of two immovable objects: Ideological tensions within the Democratic Party and a dramatic change in circumstances due to the stratospheric rise in inflation.

Since the Democrats swept to power in both houses of Congress and the White House in 2020, there has been an endemic structural tension between Biden’s maximalist domestic agenda (as he adopted much of the progressive left of the party’s desire for dangerously high rates of spending) and his scant majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The upper chamber, split in half at 50-50 (with Vice President Kamala Harris there to break ties), left Biden entirely at the mercy of any single Democratic senator who was uncomfortable with the political direction the White House was moving in. As Biden tacked ever to the left, moderate Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia (and, to a significant but lesser extent, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona) balked at the cost as well as the scope of Biden’s domestic agenda.

Late last year, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office made plain that, shorn of its accounting trickeries, the actual 10-year cost of the BBB plan would amount to $5 trillion, much higher than had been advertised. It was then that Manchin openly revolted, adamantly refusing to go along with such excessive spending.

Politically, Manchin has ample cover for his revolt. He is the last significant Democratic office holder in a state that voted for Donald Trump in 2020 by the overwhelming margin of 38.9 points, in what amounted to Trump’s second-strongest showing in the nation. In leading the charge against the leftist Democrats’ wish-list bill, Manchin was merely doing what his constituents unabashedly wanted him to do. Biden’s great error was in politically forgetting that, while the Democrats won slender majorities in Congress in 2020, the progressive wing of the party did not.

Beyond the politics, the incontestable fact that made Manchin’s opposition to BBB so successful was that, after an absence of 40 years, the beast of inflation has again been loosed on the American public. According to former Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers’ sagacious analysis, worried about the effects that COVID-19 lockdowns might have on the economy, both the Trump and Biden presidencies primed the pumps, putting a further 14 to 15 percent of federal spending into the economy. Due to the fact that the US economy bounced back far more robustly and more quickly than had been thought, we have a situation wherein this vast amount of new federal spending has been visited upon an economy already roughly back to pre-pandemic levels.

Disastrously, the math being the math, rampant inflation can be the only result. True to form, in January, inflation increased to its highest level in 40 years — an alarming 7.5 percent year on year. Huge increases in the cost of food, electricity and shelter led the way. In such dramatic circumstances, Manchin’s protest against BBB merely looked sane, as the last thing the American economy needs is the gas of further spending poured onto the roaring fire of inflation.

For all these reasons — historical, political and economic — it is safe to say that Biden’s domestic agenda is well and truly over.

This post was originally published in Arab News.