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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Edsall: Ukraine War Provides Political Peril and Potential Upside for Biden

Thomas B. Edsall’s NYT column, “What We Know About the Women Who Vote for Republicans and the Men Who Do Not” discusses a range of gender influenced attitudes related to partisanship, including “contradictory findings of a March 17-21 AP/NORC poll of 1,082 Americans on views of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.” As Edsall writes:

On one hand, 56 percent of those polled described Biden’s response as “not been tough enough” compared with 36 percent “about right” and 6 percent “too tough.” There were sharp partisan divisions on this question: 68 percent of Republicans said Biden’s response to the invasion was not tough enough, and 20 percent said it was about right. Fifty-three percent of Democrats said it was about right, and 43 percent said not tough enough. Independents were closer to Republicans than to Democrats: 64 percent not tough enough, 25 percent just right.

Conversely, the AP/NORC survey found that 45 percent of respondents said they were very or extremely “concerned about Russia using nuclnd Dems)ear weapons that target the United States,” 30 percent said they were “somewhat concerned,” and 25 percent said they were “not very or not at all concerned.”

The potential pitfalls in the American response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine range from provoking Vladimir Putin to further escalation to diminishing the United States in the eyes of Russia and the rest of the world. The specific dangers confronting policymakers stem from serious decisions taken in a crisis climate, but the pressures on those making the decisions are tied to the competing psychological dispositions of Republicans and Democrats described above, and they are tied as well to discrepancies between men and women in toleration of the use of force.

In a 2018 paper, “The Suffragist Peace,” Joslyn N. Barnhart, Allan Dafoe, Elizabeth N. Saunders and Robert F. Trager found that “at each stage of the escalatory ladder, women prefer more peaceful options.”

“More telling,” the authors write,

is to compare how men and women weigh the choice between backing down and conflict. Women are nearly indifferent between an unsuccessful use of force in which nothing is gained, and their country’s leader backs down after threatening force. Men, by contrast, would much rather see force used unsuccessfully than see the country’s reputation endangered through backing down. Approval among men is fully 36 percent higher for a use of force that achieves nothing and in which over 4,000 U.S. soldiers die than when the U.S. president backs down and the same objective outcome is achieved without loss of life.

The gender gap on the use of force has deep roots. A 2012 study, “Men and Women’s Support for War: Accounting for the gender gap in public opinion,” found consistently higher support among men than women for military intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, concluding that the evidence shows a “consistent ‘gender gap’ over time and across countries.” According to the study, “it would be rare to find scholarship in which gender differences on the question of using military force are not present.”

The author, Ben Clements, cites “psychological differences between women and men, with the former laying greater value on group relationships and the use of cooperation and compromise, rather than aggressive means, to resolve disputes.”

It should be self-evident that the last thing this country needs at a time when the world has drawn closer to the possibility of nuclear war than it has for decades is a leader like Donald Trump, the apotheosis of aggressive, intemperate white manhood, who at the same time unreservedly seeks the admiration of Vladimir Putin and other authoritarians.

The difficult task facing Biden is finding the correct balance between restraint and authority, between harm avoidance and belligerent opposition. The situation in Ukraine has the potential to damage Biden’s already weakened political stature or to provide him with an opportunity to regain some of the support he had when first elected.

As Edsall concluse, “American wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have been costly for incumbent American presidents, and Biden faces an uphill struggle reversing that trend, even as the United States faces the most dangerous set of circumstances in its recent history.”

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