Almost exactly sixty years ago John F. Kennedy, a first-term Democratic president from the moderate wing of his party, campaigned across the country to prevent his party from losing control of Congress in the midterm elections. Kennedy had come under fire from the liberal wing of his party, and from African Americans marching for their civil rights, for being too timid in advocating for progressive change, but he was also under pressure from others in his party and beyond to revive a slowing economy.
However, a fast-moving international crisis quickly overshadowed these domestic concerns. In the middle of October 1962, at the height of the midterm election campaign, U.S. intelligence discovered that the Soviet Union had been secretly placing offensive strategic nuclear missiles, and several thousand Soviet soldiers, in Cuba. Through the summer and into the autumn, as some Americans became suspicious that the Soviets were planning to mount such an operation, Kennedy denied there was anything to worry about while also warning Moscow of the consequences should they take such an aggressive course of action. Yet when it was revealed to the public, in a dramatic televised speech from the Oval Office on October 22, 1962, the scale of the Soviet presence in Cuba suggested Moscow had been engaged in this covert operation for months.
The parallels to the 2022 midterm elections currently underway are striking. Now, as then, a moderate Democratic president – an Irish Catholic, no less – campaigns in the teeth of economic turbulence and splits within his party between progressives and moderates to avoid losing control of Congress. In the midst of the campaign, the leader in Moscow launches a bold, surprising, nuclear-tipped gamble designed to seize the initiative in the midst of international conditions that are running strongly against him. Nikita Khrushchev gambled on Cuba in 1962, and in 2022 Vladimir Putin has placed his nuclear bet on Ukraine.
But there are plenty of differences, too, that not only highlight the gulf across six decades that separate 1962 from 2022 but also show how very difficult it will be for Biden to emulate his hero Kennedy—and the key difference is the role of foreign policy in American elections.
U.S. foreign policy has always been politicized, and historians have shown repeatedly that the bipartisan ideal, first articulated in the early years of the Cold War, that “politics stops at the water’s edge” was in fact a myth. This was certainly true in the summer and autumn of 1962, when Kennedy came under fierce conservative pressure, led by Senator Kenneth Keating, a Republican from New York, for being soft on communism in general and weak on the Cuban revolution in particular. In fact, Kennedy’s tough response to the Soviet nuclear buildup in Cuba was in large part driven by the pressures of domestic politics. As Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara pointed out, and as Kennedy himself acknowledged privately, the fact that the U.S. now faced Soviet missiles only 90 miles away in Cuba did not matter one bit strategically. The Soviets already had the capability of attacking the United States with nuclear weapons, and the new missile bases in Cuba did not heighten the threat to Americans at all. But those missiles did significantly elevate the political risk for Kennedy, who would soon be up for re-election in 1964. Indeed, the risk was already much greater at the time, during the crisis itself. As JFK confided to his brother Bobby (who was also attorney general and a key player in solving the crisis) in an unguarded moment at the height of the standoff, “I think I would have been impeached” had he not done everything he could to remove the missiles.
This is not a problem Joe Biden faces over Ukraine in 2022. The inherent bipartisan nature of U.S. foreign policy might be a myth, but myths don’t come from nowhere. Many myths, certainly those in U.S. politics, has kernel or two of truth that, even though it’s the exception to the rule, often stands in for the rule itself. The largely bipartisan response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that kernel of truth for today’s world. This means that Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling is not the same kind of political problem for Biden that Cuba was for Kennedy. Whereas JFK had spent the summer denying rumors of Soviet missiles heading to Cuba only to proven wrong, in January and February 2022 Biden used high-grade U.S. intelligence to issue constant warnings of an impending Russian attack on Ukraine, and he was proven right. The U.S. then responded by implementing unprecedentedly tough sanctions with surprising speed, and even though that helped fuel the inflation crisis that was threatening Biden’s presidency there was little dissent from any quarter to the strong anti-Russian response.
Perhaps Biden would have suffered politically had his response been perceived as the same kind of weakness he was said to have displayed in the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan the previous summer. After all, Kennedy’s “Kabul moment,” the disastrous failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs the year before the missile crisis, was a burden that helped reduce his room for maneuver in October 1962 and pushed him to take a harder line. And he was only able to shake the humiliation of the Bay of Pigs with his resolve during the missile crisis.
But timing here is everything. Kennedy faced pressure over foreign policy heading into the midterms, and then the eruption of a crisis during the campaign allowed him to seize the moment and turn weakness into strength. The Democrats went on to defy the laws of political gravity – the party in the White House almost always loses a significant number seats in the midterms, especially if they also control Congress – by losing only four seats in the House of Representatives and actually winning seats in the Senate. Kennedy was then able to use the twin boosts of success in settling the missile crisis on America’s terms and relative success in the midterms to relaunch his presidency in 1963, with massive supply-side tax cuts, renewed support for civil rights, and, more surprisingly, a nuclear test-ban treaty and the beginning of détente with the Soviet Union.
Biden doesn’t face any such pressures on foreign policy right now: he’s tough on Russia, and he’s tough on China, and those policies have majority support in the United States. But that won’t necessarily save his party in the midterms next month, and it’s highly unlikely that will help him revive a sagging economy, reset his flailing presidency, and unite his fractious party. The painful irony facing Biden is that even though foreign policy right now seems to be unusually (and surely temporarily) bipartisan, it won’t save the Democrats at the ballot box.