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Josh Hawley’s False Choice

For a guy who says we should do less for Ukraine and more for America’s working people, he sure doesn’t support policies that help the working people.
February 28, 2023
Josh Hawley’s False Choice
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., is reflected in a tablet while questioning FBI Director Christopher Wray, during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in Hart Building on Thursday, August, 4, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley has been trending, sadly, for presenting a false and dangerous choice to his fellow Republicans in Congress: “You can either be the party of Ukraine and the globalists or you can be the party of East Palestine and the working people of this country.”

Puh-leese. It’s absurd to suggest the United States should ignore what’s happening in the rest of the world or that America can’t handle a literal train wreck at the same time it is helping Ukraine fight to survive and bury Vladimir Putin’s imperialist delusions of resuscitating the Russian Empire. What’s even more ridiculous is that Hawley himself isn’t choosing either option. He’s made clear he wants to back away from Ukraine, to cut off aid. But he has also passed up major opportunities to help working people.

What does Ukraine have to do with the unfortunate souls of East Palestine in the wake of a freight train derailment that spewed toxic chemicals all over their town? You won’t be surprised to hear, if you haven’t already, that a very concerned-looking Tucker Carlson appears to have led a willing and well-prepared Hawley into this thicket.

“Yeah, I don’t think they’re unrelated at all, Tucker,” Hawley says in a short video clip he tweeted.

I mean the truth is that Joe Biden, and let’s face it, congressional Republicans, have spent over $100 billion and counting on the Ukraine war. And meanwhile, the folks in East Palestine have poison in the water, poison in the air. It’s clear that our infrastructure in this country is crumbling and what is this administration doing about it? Frankly, what is Congress doing about it? Not a whole heck of a lot. I think that that’s a stark contrast. And I would just say to Republicans, listen, you can either be the party of Ukraine and the globalists or you can be the party of East Palestine and the working people of this country. But it’s time to say to the Europeans, no more welfare for Europeans. Let the Europeans take the lead on Europe. It is time to put the working people of this country first, to make those folks strong again, and to make this country strong again.


Hawley didn’t seem to have a problem with “globalism” a year ago, when Russia commenced its “brutal assault” on Ukraine. He called for “strong American resolve” in the face of the invasion and said President Biden must “sanction Russian energy production to a halt” and “help arm the Ukrainians to defend themselves.” But this month, Hawley said the focus on Russia is wrong and China is the real threat.

His insulting “welfare” for Europe trope disregards dramatic developments over the past year. European nations, the New York Times wrote Sunday, “have pledged more than $50 billion in various forms of aid to Kyiv, imposed 10 rounds of sanctions, absorbed more than eight million Ukrainian refugees (nearly the population of Austria), and largely weaned themselves off Russian oil and gas in a sweeping shift under acute inflationary pressure.”

Major military shifts include Germany announcing it will rearm and Finland and Sweden seeking to join NATO. The two wealthy nations have capable, well-equipped militaries and are planning large increases in their defense spending. “Russia should be scared of Finland’s military innovation,” said a National Interest headline in April 2021, ten months before the Ukraine invasion. In June 2022, Joel Hickman of the Center for European Policy Analysis called the change of heart in Finland and Sweden a strategic, geographic, political, and military game-changer for NATO and the West.

Two months later, the Senate voted 95-1 to ratify the admission of Finland and Sweden to NATO. If you guessed Hawley was the lone no vote, you’d be right. His reasoning? We need to do less in Europe and shift focus to China, because we can’t do both.

President Biden has repeatedly said U.S. forces would get involved if China attacks Taiwan. But as defense and foreign policy scholar Hal Brands wrote last fall, Putin’s “bloody mess” in Ukraine may be a deterrent and “even the most worried observers think a showdown is at least two to three years away.”

In any case, as Biden often says, never bet against America. The idea that the United States would go from sitting out World War II to fighting it simultaneously in Europe and the Pacific seemed unimaginable until Pearl Harbor and President Franklin Roosevelt’s stunning war production mobilization. Car factories were retooled to turn out plane fuselages and engines, guns, trucks, tanks, and even bombers. U.S. industrial production doubled in four years and transformed places like Sacramento, California; Mobile, Alabama; and Waterbury, Connecticut, as Ken Burns chronicled in The War, his 2007 documentary for PBS. Ultimately the United States provided two-thirds of the Allies’ military equipment for the whole war.

Right now we’re not facing a two-front war. We’re not sending troops to Ukraine. Europe is stepping up as new realities take hold. And Biden seems to be juggling three top priorities just fine—trying to make the world safe from Russian aggression, manage competition with China so that it does not “veer into conflict,” and move the economy forward with “a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives.”

The bipartisan infrastructure and high-tech manufacturing laws that the Democratic-controlled Congress passed over the last two years and Biden signed are already starting to improve supply-chain security, encourage investment, and create hundreds of thousands of jobs, from construction and manufacturing to science and technology. They are starting to make roads, bridges, and railways safer, bring broadband to underserved communities, and replace lead pipes in others. New plants are opening in places like Columbus, Ohio and Marshall, Michigan (about 100 miles west of Detroit).

But Hawley voted no on both new laws.

“It’s not about infrastructure at all,” Hawley said of the 2021 infrastructure package. “Why is Biden so enthusiastically for it? Because it advances his far left agenda.” More than a few of Hawley’s Senate GOP colleagues disagreed: The bill passed 69-30, with 19 Republicans voting yes.

Hawley also had problems with the CHIPS and Science Act designed to strengthen the domestic computer chips supply chain and U.S. competitiveness with China. The act included safeguards to keep investments in America, and 17 Republicans voted with Senate Democrats to pass it 64-33 last year. Still, Hawley called it “a big giveaway” that would allow U.S. companies to use American tax dollars to expand in China, and also complained about the rushed timing.

There’s always some catch for Hawley. He wants to help workers, but he voted against jobs and safety for people he professes to care about. And in 2017, when he was attorney general of Missouri, he was part of a lawsuit to kill the entire Affordable Care Act, including protections for people with preexisting conditions; premium subsidies for less affluent people; and expanded Medicaid coverage to people just above the federal poverty line, most of them low-income workers, funded mostly by the federal government. He said he’d pass something new to protect people with preexisting conditions, including his young son. But the financial feasibility of these protections depends on other aspects of the ACA, and all of that would have been wiped out under the conservative lawsuit Hawley joined.

As a senator, Hawley often leads the kneejerk contrarian wing of the GOP, even if he’s the only person in that wing. The point is to stand apart from Democrats and establishment Republicans. His own “solutions” can be highly flawed and his worker sympathies are belied by his 11 percent average lifetime AFL-CIO voting score. For 2021, the most recent year available, his votes against a raft of Biden’s nominees drove it down to 4 percent.

Hawley is rarely tempted by the successful efforts of his Republican colleagues to reach compromise on complicated issues. In fact, searching for some indication of negotiations involving Hawley, I was led to a Valentine’s Day 2019 tweet in which he bragged about voting no on a “stupid” border security deal his then home-state colleague Roy Blunt had helped negotiate to avert a government shutdown. The Senate passed it 83-16. Hawley had been in Congress then for about a month.

The East Palestine train wreck is the next big test for both parties and the sincerity of those, like Hawley and his fellow travelers in the faux-populist-lite brigade, who say they want to help. Donald Trump weakened regulation of rail safety and hazardous chemicals when he was president but now, as an official 2024 candidate for his old job, he was the first major figure to show up at the Ohio-Pennsylvania border town. Biden has sent federal workers door to door there and called out rail companies (saying they should stop resisting safety regulation) and elected officials (saying that some pointing fingers want to “dismantle the EPA” that’s overseeing the cleanup). Proposals to improve safety are sprouting up. They will require conservatives to support more government regulation, and not just in Trump country like East Palestine but everywhere there is environmental risk.

Former Sen. Phil Gramm wrote about upcoming debt ceiling conflicts in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed called “The Reagan Revolution Was Built on Compromise.” But his lessons apply just as well to what’s coming in the wake of the East Palestine derailment. The Texas conservative says he teared up as he told Reagan about the deal he had to make to assure passage of an ambitious bill. “The test of any legislation is whether the country is better off with the change than it would have been without it,” Gramm wrote, and advised anyone who can’t accept compromise to leave Congress and join the priesthood.

Keep that in mind as showhorse politicians like Hawley either face up to their rhetoric and responsibilities, or don’t.

Jill Lawrence

Jill Lawrence is an opinion writer and the author of The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock. She previously covered national politics for the AP and USA Today and was the managing editor for politics at National Journal. Homepage: Twitter: @JillDLawrence.