Opinion | To Save His Presidency, Biden Must Tell the Truth About Afghanistan

For days now, the news media has likened the chaotic end of our misadventure in Afghanistan, and the awful images of terrified people scrambling onto planes at the Kabul airport, to the final exit from South Vietnam. The comparison is overdrawn; the last American combat troops left Indochina two years before the collapse of the Saigon government.

But there is at least one potential parallel between the two conflicts that should have President Biden worried: The last time a war blew up in the face of a Democratic president, it derailed his domestic agenda and stalled the most ambitious social reforms of a generation.

To be sure, domestic political concerns should not overshadow the immediate urgency of getting all Americans and the Afghans who worked for them out of Afghanistan. But history shows how adversity abroad has often led to trouble for the governing party back home. Mr. Biden may not be able to save his ambitious legislative agenda unless he understands that lesson from the past.

In 1964, Lyndon Johnson and his fellow Democrats secured crushing majorities that enabled them to enact a flurry of landmark legislation: the Voting Rights Act, the bill establishing Medicare and Medicaid, an overhaul of immigration law. It is a feat Mr. Biden and progressive Democrats in Congress today would dearly like to emulate.

But Johnson’s decision early in 1965 to send thousands of troops to combat the Vietcong soon halted the momentum of his Great Society agenda and put Democrats on the defensive. A year later, as the war dragged on and protests mounted, Johnson’s approval rating dipped below 50 percent. In the midterm contests of 1966, the Republican Party picked up 47 seats in the House, and Democratic governors in eight states were replaced by Republicans — one of them a former actor named Ronald Reagan in California. By 1968, Republicans had taken back the White House, and Democrats never achieved a progressive policy agenda as far-reaching again.

Joe Biden bears far less responsibility for the defeat in Afghanistan than Lyndon Johnson did for the debacle in Indochina. As Mr. Biden mentioned in his address to the nation on Monday, as vice president, he opposed the troop surge ordered by Barack Obama in 2009. He can also claim that he was merely carrying out an agreement Donald Trump signed last year.

Furthermore, unlike the Vietnam War, which provoked a long, scorching debate that divided the country far more bitterly and profoundly than the more limited, if lengthier battle with the Taliban ever did, this conflict could soon be forgotten. As the public’s attention shifts away from Afghanistan, Mr. Biden’s decision may seem less like a failure and more like a sober, even necessary end to a policy that was doomed from the start.

Yet the president and his fellow Democrats face a political environment so daunting that even the slightest disruption could derail their domestic agenda. Even before the Afghan crisis, they needed the vote of every senator from their party to enact their budget blueprint, and Mr. Biden has never had the sky-high approval ratings that allowed Johnson to rule Congress with an iron fist.This week, for the first time, his rating dipped into the 40s. Whatever they manage to accomplish in Congress, Democrats could easily lose their narrow control of both houses in the next midterm election, especially if Republicans effectively inflame fears about Afghan refugees being resettled in this country.

The United States has not had a true majority party for 50 years, and that stalemate, with the enduringly fierce partisanship it engenders, is unlikely to end soon. To pass the big reforms he wants, Mr. Biden will need to describe what he did to end this war better than Johnson explained why he dispatched troops to meddle in another civil conflict in a nation thousands of miles from their homeland.

Two lessons from Johnson’s downfall are paramount. First, tell the truth, even if it makes you look bad, temporarily. The 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers demonstrated that Johnson lied continually when he lauded the progress the United States and its South Vietnamese allies were supposedly making. By 1966, the press was accusing the administration of creating a “credibility gap” that only yawned wider as the conflict escalated.

All presidents lie at times, but those who admit mistakes, particularly obvious ones, can retain their popularity. This happened to John F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 and to Bill Clinton when he acknowledged his affair with Monica Lewinsky in 1998 (although he benefited more from the Republicans’ failed attempt to throw him out of office).

Mr. Biden made a decent start at such truth-telling during his speech this week. But he should give a fuller explanation of why his administration failed to prepare for a Taliban victory that, according to years of intelligence reports, was quite likely.

Second, keep the coalition that elected you united in its response to the crisis. Though Johnson had a reputation as a masterful politician, he became despised by millions of his fellow Democrats because of his Vietnam policy. If Democrats in Congress follow through on their vows to carry out extensive hearings into the collapse of the Afghan government, they could provoke a similar intraparty battle.

But the president may be able to stave off that kind of public bickering. If he chooses to declassify whatever vital documents exist, in an attempt to convince his Democratic critics that he is serious about revealing why his exit strategy went wrong, it may dissuade them from engaging in their own lengthy investigation.

The defeat in Afghanistan, like the one in Vietnam, was a long time coming. Democrats can take steps to prevent such interventions. But if they repeat the errors of their predecessors in the 1960s, they may secure the triumph of an opposition party whose leaders have not stopped lying about the election that drove them from power.

Michael Kazin (@mkazin), a professor of history at Georgetown University, is the author of the forthcoming book, “What It Took to Win: A History of the Democratic Party.”

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