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In a deeply divided Washington, shooting down UFOs is scrambling partisan battle lines

Biden's opponents have struggled to find a narrative on the downed objects. "No one has a playbook in politics for shooting down UFOs that are not aliens," a Democratic strategist said.
A fighter jet passes a large balloon off South Carolina on Feb. 4. Chad Fish via AP

WASHINGTON — Fighter jets weren’t the only things scrambled by the appearance of mysterious objects over North America this month — so, too, were American politics.

The shooting down of UFOs over American airspace represents a political phenomenon almost as unusual as the aeronautic one — a major news story with no partisan associations, no obvious culture war connections and few historical reference points in the political forever war.

“Everything fits into a partisan realm right now,” Democratic strategist Jared Leopold said. “No one has a playbook in politics for shooting down UFOs that are not aliens.”

The political battle lines in modern Washington are typically clearly drawn, no matter what the news brings. School shootings ignite fights over gun policy. Hurricanes and wildfires stir up debate over climate change. The collapse of a football player during a game foments conspiracy theories about Covid vaccines. Advanced Placement tests, the Grammys, airline cancellations, egg prices and "The Little Mermaid" all get quickly turned into political flashpoints.

But while the UFOs shot down over the U.S. and Canada may not be extraterrestrial, they are extrapolitical. Partisan critics who get up every day looking for ways to zing the White House have struggled to fit a mysteriously shaped peg — octagon? saucer? — into the square hole of their partisan narratives.

At first, the Chinese spy balloon fit neatly into conservative talking points about Democrats being too soft on China and weak on national security. But once the Biden administration shot down the balloon and then quickly authorized the takedown of three more mysterious objects, the storyline went off-book.

Notably, former President Donald Trump seems to have sat out the issue entirely.

On his Truth Social platform, Trump has shared his thoughts on everything from the State of the Union to the Super Bowl: “Rihanna gave, without question, the single worst Halftime Show in Super Bowl history.” But of the dozens of messages Trump posted in the four days since the U.S. shot down the second object over Alaska, zero have mentioned the incident.

Some have said President Joe Biden was too slow to shoot down the Chinese spy balloon but has gone “trigger happy” with the other objects, as Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, put it on CNN on Sunday, wondering if Biden is “just trying to change headlines.”

Conservative commentator Glenn Beck said on his show Monday that it was “stupid and dangerous” for the administration to shoot down the new objects, warning Biden could trigger an escalatory tit for tat with China that could lead to nuclear war.

“We should have taken out the first balloon. But now, I don’t know,” Beck said. “Are we just taking out birthday party balloons? And then calling it, like, ‘it could be a danger,’ because we’re trying to act tough? And if we’re acting that way, why would we expect the rest of the world to act differently? This is stupid and dangerous.”

“It’s a very distinct issue and it’s also kind of a new issue, so it doesn’t have a lot of baggage with it, which has helped it escape partisanship,” said Chris Mellon, a former top Pentagon official in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations who is now a leading advocate of further study into unexplained aerial phenomena.

The overwhelming reaction from Republicans and Democrats alike is to demand more answers from the administration about what exactly the U.S. shot down and why.

U.S. Navy sailors recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, S.C. on Sunday.
Navy sailors recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Feb. 5.Petty Officer 1st Class Tyler Thompson / U.S. Navy

Rep. John James, R-Mich., a rising GOP star, said the UFOs are emblematic of how Biden’s leadership has let things get “out of control.”

“People who are not wearing tinfoil hats are talking about UFOs,” he said on Fox News on Monday. “We need to get a handle on these things. Which is why we’re doing our best to govern well from the Republican majority in the House to hold the Biden administration accountable and show we can take the Senate back and get the White House.”

Others on the right connected the UFOs to immigration.

“The American people have seen Joe Biden, in his first two years, he has failed to secure the southern border. Now they’re beginning to get concerned that he can’t secure our airspace,” the House Oversight Committee Chairman, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., said on Fox News on Monday.

Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Texas, tweeted: “Potential alien UFOs? Joe Biden shoots the objects down. 5+ million illegal aliens cross the border? Joe Biden does nothing.”

Leopold, the Democratic strategist, said the scattershot messaging is “emblematic of the chaos of this moment that doesn’t fit into a neat political box.”

“The Republican Party is geared up to attack Joe Biden, even if they’re not sure how,” Leopold said. “If the sun rises, they’ll attack him for it being too sunny. If it’s raining, they’ll attack him for it being rainy.”

Before the recent shoot-downs, unexplained aerial phenomena were a rare spot of bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers from both parties crafting legislation to require the Defense Department and Intelligence Community to better track and report unexplained aerial phenomena. Members like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., were pushing the administration to take the issue more seriously and end the stigma that has prevented pilots and others government officials from talking about weird things they see.

With the emergence of new technology like drones and hypersonic aircraft, the lawmakers argue, it’s more important than ever to be on the lookout for potential Russian and Chinese aircraft over American skies.

“There is a small band of people who are hawks on this topic. And they’re being very pragmatic on this. It’s not about spaceships and laser beams; it’s about national security and scientific inquiry,” said Ryan Graves, a former Navy aviator who has helped lobby Congress on the issue. “From my perspective, they’re all working on the same team, whether they’re blue or red, left or right.”

Gillibrand, in an interview with NBC News, said she hopes the attention on the issue will not politicize it.

“National security concerns are always bipartisan,” she said. “I think it can stay bipartisan. I think how the president handled the Chinese balloon became a political issue just because Republicans want to make it political, but how Biden handled it was appropriate.”

While UFOs have not been a political issue in the past, experts and lawmakers agree they’re going to come up a lot more now that military radar systems are actually looking for them. This is why, Gillibrand said, the government needs to be more prepared for next time.

“We can’t be spinning on a dime every minute to decide whether we’re going to shoot down an unknown device,” she said.