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Could the GOP Divide Over Ukraine Become a Lasting Split?

Russia’s invasion of its democratic neighbor must matter more than ‘woke’ culture wars.
March 16, 2023
Could the GOP Divide Over Ukraine Become a Lasting Split?
Supporters of Ukraine and members of the Ukrainian community hold a rally to mark the one-year anniversary of Russias invasion of Ukraine, near the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall on Saturday, Feb. 25, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The great hope among many Republicans is that Ron DeSantis will run for president in 2024 as a smarter version of former President Donald Trump. But DeSantis’s stance on the U.S. interest in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is proving unfortunate for anyone harboring that hope.

In the past, the Florida governor’s backers may have been able to explain away his more controversial decisions—to align himself with election deniers, say, or use false pretenses to send migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, or call for the arrest of Dr. Anthony Fauci—as pro forma MAGA pandering. His position on Ukraine is different.

As Will Saletan recounts, DeSantis, in response to a  Tucker Carlson questionnaire, accused the Biden administration of “virtual ‘blank check’ funding” of Ukraine in a “territorial dispute” that the United States should not be “entangled” in because it is not one of “our country’s most pressing challenges.” By characterizing the conflict in this way—and signaling that if he were elected president, he would not continue to support Ukraine in its fight for survival—DeSantis is knowingly driving a wedge between himself and his GOP peers.

Take, for example, the distance between DeSantis’s words and those of Mitch McConnell. This is what the Senate minority leader told allies in a speech in Munich earlier this year:

I am a conservative Republican from America, and I come in peace! Reports about the death of Republican support for strong American leadership in the world have been greatly exaggerated.

My party’s leaders overwhelmingly support a strong, involved America and a robust trans-Atlantic alliance. Don’t look at Twitter, look at people in power. Look at me and Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Look at the top Republicans on the Senate and House committees that handle Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, Appropriations, and Intelligence. Look at the former Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor, and Director of National Intelligence from the previous Republican Administration.

Republican leaders are committed to a strong trans-Atlantic alliance. We are committed to helping Ukraine. Not because of vague moral arguments or abstractions like the so-called ‘rules-based international order.’ But rather, because America’s own core national interests are at stake. Because our security is interlinked and our economies are intertwined.

In a sign of how rapidly Republican opinion can shift, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is no longer quite the Ukraine supporter he was a month ago when McConnell made these remarks. But even so: How can what DeSantis said be made compatible with what McConnell told the world?

Currently recovering from an injury, McConnell has not responded directly to DeSantis’s latest Ukraine statement. But, following McConnell’s lead within the party on the issue, a number of other prominent Republicans have separated themselves from DeSantis’s decision to join the surrender caucus, including Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Liz Cheney, and a clutch of GOP senators.

But how likely are they to win the argument?

While McConnell would like the world to look to him and other hawkish Republicans for leadership, Trump and DeSantis are likely to crowd them out of the frame as we move further into primary season.

The former president and the current governor are probably the two most well-known and most talked-about Republicans in America; they claim the overwhelming majority of GOP polling support for 2024. Their words are taken seriously by people all over the world. Russia is listening to Trump and DeSantis with great interest, as are our European allies, many of which have calibrated their commitments of money and materiel in response to America’s strong backing of Ukraine.

That fact didn’t escape Senator J.D. “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another” Vance, who told Fox News’s Bret Baier on Wednesday:

It’s telling, Bret, that you have the two leading candidates, President Trump and DeSantis, both saying we cannot commit ourselves to the Ukrainian war indefinitely. I think that’s the right view, I think that our voters are certainly there, and the question is, frankly, whether a lot of folks in Washington D.C. get there, too.

Vance’s hunch about his colleagues’ resolve is correct: There is a good chance they will fold if their voters go against them on this issue. Vance knows who has the voters’ ears—whom they’re listening to on radio and podcasts, reading on the web, and especially watching on Fox.

Think of it this way: The audience on the right for views like those of DeSantis, Trump, Carlson, and Vance is far bigger than the audience for what McConnell said in Germany, to say nothing of the audience for the bite-size response some member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave to Politico during a hallway interview.

So what happens if the pro-Ukraine Republicans eventually lose the argument? JVL predicted their future pivot in his Tuesday newsletter:

They’ll tell themselves that DeSantis doesn’t really mean the things he says. They’ll pretend that Democrats are trying to institute socialism. They’ll say that CRT, or trans high school athletes, or gas stoves, or Roald Dahl books are more important than abstract ideas about democracy. Or some war thousands of miles away.

Here’s something that should be more broadly understood and plainly said: Debates du jour over “woke” culture appear and vanish as quickly as a YouTube ad break. Further, anyone who wishes to enlist in the culture war is free to do so here at home; all over the country, there are plenty of positions available on local school boards or in county commission offices.

But the situation in Ukraine is not a “culture war.” It’s a war, full stop. The survival or destruction of this fellow democracy will help determine the future shape of the world order, and the actions of the United States in response to Ukraine’s dire need could set an important precedent for our role in international affairs in the coming decades. Only a handful of political, military, and diplomatic leaders at the highest levels of government are entrusted with such great responsibility in settling these matters. We must choose those leaders carefully, with a clear view of what is at stake.

Pence expressed it well when he stated in response to the same Tucker Carlson questionnaire:

When the United States supports Ukraine in their fight against Putin, we follow the Reagan doctrine, and we support those who fight our enemies on their shores, so we will not have to fight them ourselves. There is no room for Putin apologists in the Republican Party.

Not that Pence is any great influence on the GOP base.

If you add together the support that Ukraine hawks Pence and Haley are receiving in current polls, you might—someday—come up with a double-digit number. Maintaining the support of a small but principled minority is a bleak consolation for politicians on the outs. Just ask any number of Republicans who view January 6th as a disqualifying political event for Trump.

All that to say: expect JVL to be right.

The GOP primary may turn out to be a long and painful exercise in proving that anyone who genuinely believes the ideals of democracy, freedom, and the rule of law are higher political priorities than shutting down drag queen brunches has no place in the party.

Even so, that doesn’t leave the Pence, Haley, and McConnell types without choices.

DeSantis has shown himself willing to disregard both the real geopolitical stakes and the sheer human cost of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to strike a pose for MAGA. If he keeps it up, the split with him should be more than temporary.

After all, plenty of responsible Republicans, including many of Trump’s former inner circle, sat out the 2020 presidential election or crossed party lines to vote for Joe Biden. Should the Trump-DeSantis-Carlson worldview prevail within the GOP, there’s reason for it to happen again in 2024.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.