How Ron DeSantis Failed the Ukraine Test
A a big moment, the GOP hopeful chose to make a crude and cynical appeal to the base
President’s Day offered a revealing split-screen for the state of American politics in 2023. On one side was President Biden completing a dramatic and dangerous trip to Kyiv to meet with President Zelensky and demonstrate U.S. support for Ukraine.
On the other side was Florida Governor and putative Presidential candidate Ron DeSantis appearing on Fox and Friends to slam President Biden for his offering “blank checks to Ukraine.” DeSantis told the hosts:
I and many Americans are thinking to ourselves, Ok, he's very concerned about those borders halfway around the world. He's not done anything to secure our own borders here... we have a lot of problems accumulating here."
This moment was revelatory in two key ways. First, it demonstrated the challenge for Republicans trying to run against the Fox News caricature of “Sleepy Joe.” It’s hard to overstate the stature gap between a commander in chief astride the world stage and a Governor chopping it up Steve Doocy on a cable morning show. You can’t credibly argue that Biden isn’t up to the job, when he is blazoned across every screen doing the job in historically courageous ways. Presidents usually win reelection in part because they have the consistent opportunity to create made-for-media moments that dominate the national conversation.
Second, DeSantis’s decision to criticize Biden on Ukraine policy while the President was in a warzone speaks to the emerging isolationist politics in the Republican base that will shape the primary with potential consequences for the 2024 general election.
The Politics of Ukraine
Since the Vietnam War, Americans have had limited appetites for prolonged engagements overseas. This dynamic was greatly accelerated by George W. Bush’s poorly conceived and even more poorly executed War in Iraq. There is a rhythm to it. An event like the Russian invasion of Ukraine occurs. It dominates media coverage and conversation. Most of the country rallies to the cause. Over time, the media stops covering the story with the same intensity. Support begins to erode. Frustration develops that focus and resources are being spent abroad instead of at home.
This is largely how things have played out with the politics in Ukraine. While most Americans remain supportive of the U.S. support for Ukraine, support has waned in the last year. According to a poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs conducted in December, about two thirds of Americans support providing economic assistance to Ukraine, sending weapons and military supplies, and further economic sanctions on Russia. But the poll also shows that patience is not endless. The percentage of Americans who think that the U.S. should support Ukraine “as long a it takes” dropped from 58 percent in July 2022 to 48 percent.
While the public has expressed more support for Biden’s policies than confidence in his approach to implementing those policies, on its surface, the politics of Ukraine seem clear. The public — particularly Independents — very much sides with Biden and Zelensky over Putin and DeSantis — which raises the question of why DeSantis spent his President’s Day pushing an unpopular position.
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