Los Angeles Politics

Ukraine will test whether Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and the GOP give in to America First isolationism

For years Joe Biden has told audiences, “This is not your father’s Republican Party.” He’s right. And perhaps nothing better illustrates the shift than the party’s eroding support for America’s global role as leader of the free world and its embrace of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Russia’s year-old war on Ukraine is the crucible that will test which strain could come to define the 21st century Republican Party: its traditional internationalism or “America First” isolationism. Let’s hope it’s the former, for the sake of the nation and the international order.

Opinion Columnist

Jackie Calmes

Jackie Calmes brings a critical eye to the national political scene. She has decades of experience covering the White House and Congress.

When Democrats controlled the White House and Congress, Republicans mostly could stay on the sidelines of the Ukraine debate. But now they’re forced on two fronts to take a stand: The Republican controlled House will have to act on Biden’s all-but-certain requests for more Ukraine aid. And in the emerging contest for a 2024 presidential standard-bearer, voters will likely face a choice between isolationists and the alternatives.

So far, we’re seeing a mix of Republican messages that suggest an intense debate ahead. The loudest voices lately have been those of retreat from the global stage, even as Biden made his risky surprise trip to Kyiv this week to underscore U.S. support for Ukraine.

“Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia. Never!” the president said in a speech at Poland’s royal castle the next day.

But as Biden walked a Kyiv street with President Volodymyr Zelensky, with air-raid sirens screaming, former president and current candidate Donald Trump sent out a fundraising email headlined, “Biden puts Ukraine before America.” Hoping to pick the pockets of small donors in his America First corner, Trump charged that it was Biden who was fleecing them: “He loves sending your dollars to secure other countries’ borders, help other countries’ citizens.”

Yet a competing message has come from a newly declared rival for the Republican nomination, former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley. She told NBC the U.S. should “give [Zelensky] what he needs to win.” At a campaign appearance she said, “It’s not a war about Ukraine; this is about a war on freedom.”

When Haley’s NBC inquisitor noted that she differed with Trump on that, Haley reflexively said her only difference was with Biden. Like too many Republicans, she doesn’t want to poke the boorish bear that is Trump. “I don’t kick sideways,” she said, meaning at other Republicans.

But this is a debate that Republicans must have.

Even Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, presidential candidate in waiting, was compelled to break from his obsession with the culture wars to address the real war in Ukraine. On Fox & Friends, he mostly echoed Trump’s America First themes and Biden-blaming. And while DeSantis didn’t expressly oppose continued help for Ukraine, he did seem to play down the stakes: “It’s important to point out the fear of Russia going into NATO countries … is not even coming close to happening.”

Yes, well, that’s because Russia has been bogged down in Ukraine, thanks to the brave nation’s forces and Western help.

Back in 2014 DeSantis, then a hawkish, far-right congressman, assailed then-President Obama for not doing more to arm Ukraine after Russia seized Crimea. “When Putin sees he can gain an inch, he’s apt to take a mile,” DeSantis said.

If DeSantis joins the 2024 race, won’t he have to make the same arguments directly to Putin’s favorite former U.S. president? We’ll be watching.

A parallel intra-party battle will also play out in Congress. Biden, ever optimistic — to the point of delusion?— said in Poland, “For all the disagreement we have in our Congress on some issues, there is significant agreement on support for Ukraine.”

He’s not wrong exactly. Most Republicans in Congress still do support Ukraine. To reassure allies of that, dozens attended the annual international security conference in Munich in recent days, and a small group led by the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee peeled off to Kyiv to meet Tuesday with Zelensky.

Yet numbers don’t necessarily predict the future in the House. Given Republicans’ narrow majority, the lawmakers of the pro-MAGA, America First persuasion hold inordinate sway. All week they’ve posted on social media and ranted on Russia-friendly Fox News that Biden is “an embarrassment on the world stage,” that he should have visited the southern border or East Palestine, Ohio, instead of Kyiv. Eleven Republicans sponsored a “Ukraine Fatigue” resolution calling for an end to assistance.

Fatigue is even more widespread among the party’s voters — a fact that won’t be lost on waffling lawmakers and presidential wannabes. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, half of Republicans said the U.S. is doing “too much” for Ukraine, up from 18% who said so early in the war.

Ironically, such evidence of skepticism of U.S. internationalism is the fault of old-guard Republicans, those who mostly support Ukraine. Strains of isolationism have long run through America, especially in rural areas and small towns where the Republican Party is now strongest. They grew significantly stronger post 9/11, when President George W. Bush’s decision to invade and rebuild Iraq resulted in two decades of lost American blood and treasure.

Now it’s up to some of the same Republicans who backed that war to make the case for the much more legitimate one in Ukraine, which really does matter to our national security.

Let the debate begin.


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