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July 24, 2023

Republicans and the Ukraine Conundrum

The Russia collusion hoax so jaded conservatives against the Washington establishment that they reflexively disagree with The Swamp.

“Tucker Carlson just ended Mike Pence’s candidacy.” That proclamation was trending among a number of conservative political pundits following the recent FAMiLY Leadership Summit in Iowa. To be fair, the clip of Pence’s seemingly dismissive remark following Carlson’s characterization of continuing to aid Ukraine when there’s “not one city that’s gotten better in the United States” was a bad look.

Pence replied, “Well, that’s not my concern,” which certainly doesn’t play well, especially when not given the whole context. We don’t think he was specifically replying to Carlson’s last sentence because he went on to argue that the issue with Ukraine wasn’t as binary as Carlson had asserted. “Anybody that says that we can’t be the leader of the free world and solve our problems at home has a pretty small view of the greatest nation on earth,” Pence said. “We can do both.”

But such a nuanced message doesn’t play well for political sound bites.

When it comes to sound bites, no politician may be better at producing them than Donald Trump. Regarding Ukraine, Trump’s boast that he’d be able to end the war in 24 hours is reminiscent of his 2016 campaign promise to “build the wall and make Mexico pay for it.” Of course, neither of those boasts were accomplished, but excuses abound in defense.

In a recent interview with Fox News’s Maria Bartiromo, who pushed him to explain just how he would accomplish ending the war in Ukraine so quickly, Trump revealed that his plan ironically hinges on giving even more military aide to Ukraine than Joe Biden has.

“I know [Volodomyr] Zelensky very well and I know [Vladimir] Putin very well. Even better. And I had a good relationship, very good, with both of them,” Trump explained. “I would tell Zelensky: ‘No more. You gotta make a deal.’ I would tell Putin: ‘If you don’t make a deal, we’re going to give him a lot. We’re going to [give Ukraine] more than they ever got if we have to.’ I will have the deal done in one day. One day.”

In other words, Trump’s foreign policy position differs from Biden’s only by degree. That said, we’ve argued before that Putin never would have invaded in the first place if Trump were still president.

Why does all this really matter? Carlson paints a direct contrast between spending money on Ukraine versus spending it on domestic programs as an apparent campaign issue. What do voters think?

Polling indicates that among the issues voters are most concerned about, the war in Ukraine hardly even registers. It might make for a good talking point about the government’s unending spending spree, but Americans are just not that invested in Ukraine.

With that in mind, Pence’s overall position on Ukraine makes sense if keeping the U.S. out of another war is the goal. He contends that if Ukraine falls to Putin, “in a short period of time [the] Russian military is going to cross the border of a NATO country that our armed forces will have to go and defend.” He added: “I never want to see American armed forces in Ukraine. I want to give the Ukrainian military what they need to fight and repel the Russian invasion.”

Furthermore, such a scenario would also only serve to embolden China. And a war with China is the last thing the U.S. would want.

Ron DeSantis, whose own position on Ukraine has lacked clarity, does present a pertinent criticism of the Biden administration’s current policy — the lack of a clearly defined goal. Will the U.S. keep aide flowing to Ukraine indefinitely? And to what end? Should the U.S. be pressing for a deal that ends the fighting sooner even at the expense of Crimea and the Donbas?

Those are all pertinent questions, but maybe the bigger reason that Ukraine has become the proverbial tar baby for Republican candidates is that it has everything to do with the Trump-Russia collusion hoax. A significant number of Republicans now seemingly reflexively reject the views of the Washington establishment — especially since The Swamp did everything in its power to hamstring Trump’s presidency.

The narrative surrounding Ukraine, which conservative media personalities like Carlson have helped establish, is effectively that the U.S. should have nothing to do with it. Ukraine is not our ally and Putin might even have a point, so why are we increasingly investing our resources in a war we should want no part of? That sentiment does appeal to voters who are tired of wars and praise Trump for keeping us out of another one.

For many Republican voters, support for Ukraine is synonymous with support for the Washington establishment, and they want nothing to do with that. Thus, when Pence attempts to make a sound argument as to why and how the U.S. needs to support Ukraine, many Republicans simply see it as kowtowing to The Swamp. When Trump promises to end it in a day, that resonates with people who want to move on.

There are still months left in the GOP primary, and candidates and voters will have to sort out what policy to elevate.

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