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GOP finds a consensus on Russia — criticizing Biden

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: FILE PHOTO: U.S. House Minority Leader McCarthy holds his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy holds his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill, January 13, 2022.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

WASHINGTON — If it’s Wednesday ... President Biden slaps new sanctions on Russia. ... Ukraine declares a state of emergency. ... NBC’s Benjy Sarlin explains why those Sen. Rick Scott economic policy proposals are significant. ... The DSCC is already up with a radio ad responding to Scott. ... And the GOP wins that city council race in Jacksonville, Fla.

But first: It used to be the old norm that partisan politics must stop at the water’s edge.

Yet in our hyper-polarized times, the new norm — especially as Russia moves into Ukraine — is for the political opposition to pounce on the incumbent president, no matter how real or imagined the criticism is.

“Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a renewed invasion of Ukraine is reprehensible. Sadly, President Biden consistently chose appeasement and his tough talk on Russia was never followed by strong action,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other House GOP leaders.

House Republicans then followed up with a photo of Biden as he was leaving the White House podium on Tuesday: “This is what weakness on the world stage looks like.”

Whether it’s that kind of criticism from the House GOP or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s tamer statement from yesterday (“I don't believe Vladimir Putin would have couple of hundred thousand troops on the border of Ukraine had we not precipitously withdrawn from Afghanistan last August”) — this lack of unity doesn’t help an American president during an international crisis.

And strikingly, this GOP criticism at Biden comes as today’s Republican Party is much more divided over Russia and Putin than the Democrats are.

That’s underscored by a certain former president.

Tweet of the day

Talking Policy with Benjy: Rick Scott edition

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., made a splash on Tuesday by introducing his own policy platform for the GOP to Politico, something party leaders have conspicuously avoided doing. Scott is the head of the NRSC, the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, but said his document did not speak for the group.

The document touched on a variety of familiar culture wars. Scott said the party should run on recognizing “there are two genders”; blocking “critical race theory” in schools; finishing a border wall and naming it after Donald Trump; and blocking the government from even collecting statistics on race.

These are standard GOP themes now, to varying degrees. But it’s the economic side that raised eyebrows, which included a plank that “all Americans should pay some income tax” (about 61 percent of taxpayers did not in 2020 due to low incomes or various tax credits), and a call to “prohibit debt ceiling increases absent a declaration of war,” which taken literally would mean rolling financial crises to force massive budget cuts. There were also ideas like cutting off non-disaster state and local aid and abolishing the Department of Education. Notably, there was no health care section.

Many of these are Tea Party ideas from the early 2010s. Michele Bachmann ran for president on a minimum income tax and Mitt Romney’s infamous remarks on the “47 percent” of Americans who are dependent on government referenced a conservative meme about the 47 percent who did not pay income tax. Rick Perry ran on abolishing the Department of Education (it was part of his famous “oops” moment). The Freedom Caucus pushed for debt ceiling standoffs as a shortcut to an instant balanced budget.

As Scott said, his plan was not representative of the broader party. But that’s also sort of the point: Especially on economic policy, it’s not particularly clear where the party stands now. While Trump worked closely with the Freedom Caucus, he also helped push the party away from many of Scott's small-government ideas.

On taxes, Trump ditched the Ayn Rand-style frame of overtaxed “makers” and undertaxed “takers” that Scott's plan fits into. Instead, he said people who pay $0 in income tax should get a return that read “I WIN.” It wasn't just him either: Romney became a top evangelist for child tax benefits that would benefit low-income families most, an idea some social conservatives and populists have embraced.

On government spending, Trump famously pledged not to touch programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. His record didn’t fully match it, but in general the party shifted away from the kind of balanced budget promises that would require huge entitlement cuts.

Senate Republicans also warmed up more to government spending, not only under Trump, but under President Biden. In addition to the new infrastructure law, the House and Senate are currently negotiating over a bipartisan bill to invest potentially hundreds of billions of dollars into science research and domestic manufacturing. This would almost certainly have been labeled “socialism” under President Obama.

All of this gets to bigger questions about how the next Republican president will govern. Does the business wing take back over like nothing happened, with a layer of Trumpian resentment thrown on top? Does the party return to its uncompromising Tea Party days? Or can populists take some Trump campaign themes that don’t fit into either camp and turn them into a new policy agenda?

Midterm roundup

Speaking of, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is already up with a five-figure radio buy seizing on Scott’s plan: “Republicans have released their plan if they win the Senate — it’s to raise taxes on almost 50 percent of Americans,” the ad goes.

Meanwhile, in that Jacksonville, Fla., city council race we noted yesterday, Republican Nick Howland defeated his Democratic opponent Tracye Polson Tuesday night, flipping an at-large city council seat that was the unusually large focus of both political parties, NBC’s Shaquille Brewster reports.

“This is the model for how we’re going to win the midterms and how we’re going to win the local elections next spring—we have figured it out,” Howland said at his victory event Tuesday night. Howland made support for law enforcement and public safety a central focus of his campaign.

A trio of Senate candidates are hitting the airwaves, per AdImpact. Former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel booked $443,000 worth of airtime in the GOP Senate primary, launching this ad that highlights his military service. In Nevada, former GOP state Attorney General Adam Laxalt reserved $95,000 on cable. And in Arizona, Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly bought $282,000 of airtime, focusing his campaign's first TV ad on his background and the economy.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., has not yet said if he’s definitely running for re-election after being drawn into the same district as fellow GOP Rep. Bill Huizinga, but his campaign dropped a clue yesterday, spending $193,000 on TV airtime in the race for the 4th District, per AdImpact. Here’s the ad.

Justice Democrats and Working Families Party are also hitting the airwaves in Texas’ 35th District, where both groups are backing former Austin City Councilmember Greg Casar in the open Democratic primary. The race in the deep blue district has become a microcosm of the debate among Democrats in Washington over how exactly to advance their priorities.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, R-Iowa, is getting her turn in the national spotlight as she runs for re-election. She was tapped to give the Republican response to Biden’s first State of the Union address next week.

Two Missouri Senate candidates made news as they filed to run yesterday. GOP Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., told reporters that Trump offered his endorsement should Long drop out of the Senate race to run for the House instead. And GOP Rep. Vicky Hartzler said she would not vote for former Gov. Eric Greitens if he wins the GOP Senate primary, per the Springfield News-Leader.

In Alabama, NBC’s Jessica Nix raises the question: Trump’s endorsed Senate candidate lost in 2017. Could it happen again in 2022?

Former college basketball star Royce West announced a bid for Congress against Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar with a video where he says his problem with Omar is that she’s a “globalist,” not “that she’s not an American or that she’s not from Minnesota.

Ad watch: “What is a Pennsylvania?”

The group Honor Pennsylvania is out with another TV ad in the state’s race for the Republican nomination for Senate. Once again, the group is attacking former TV host Mehmet Oz, alleging that he’s not from the state and is a “Hollywood outsider.”

In the new ad, the group features a group of voters who are supposed to be from California. They take turns supposedly complimenting Oz, saying things like, “Mehmet Oz, Oprah's bestie?” and “Oz's family company hired illegal immigrants. So brave.” Near the end, one person says, “Oz isn't running in California?” and another says, “What is a Pennsylvania?” before the narrator concludes, “This sounds right for Hollywood, wrong for Pennsylvania.”

This ad is the fifth anti-Oz commercial in Pennsylvania funded by the group.

Data Download: The number of the day is … $50 million

That’s about how much Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott had in his bank account as of Feb. 19, according to the Texas Tribune’s Patrick Svitek, a herculean figure bolstered by the governor raising $3.8 million between Jan. 21 and Feb. 19. Abbott started that period with $62.6 million in the bank, which means he’s spent big money in the weeks before his primary election, which he’s heavily favored to win.

Svitek reports that Abbott’s likely general election rival, former Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, says he raised almost $3 million over that same period. But he’ll trail Abbott massively in cash reserves, as O’Rourke started the latest period with just $6 million banked away.

Other numbers you need to know today:

13: The number of Trump-backed congressional candidates heading to Mar-a-Lago today for a fundraiser and forum hosted by Trump’s super PAC.

1: The number of Democratic donors who gave more than $25,000 to the Democratic Association of Secretaries of States, Politico reports.

36 percent: The percentage of those surveyed in the latest Gallup poll that approved of Biden’s handling of “the situation with Russia.” The poll was conducted from Feb. 1-17.

700: The number of National Guard troops who have been approved to come help with traffic control in Washington D.C. amid concerns that demonstrations of truck convoys could become disruptive.

ICYMI: What else is happening in the world

President Biden has interviewed three candidates for the Supreme Court — federal Judges Ketanji Brown Jackson and J. Michelle Childs, as well as California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger.

The Supreme Court will take up a case of a website designer who doesn’t want to offer her wedding website services to same-sex couples.

A federal jury found the three men convicted in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery guilty of hate crimes.