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Party over Country: The Republican Response to Russia
The GOP is cynically trying to use the Russian invasion to score political points. They need to be called out for it.
It’s always a little uncomfortable talking about the political implications of an international crisis. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a global catastrophe that will lead to untold and unnecessary violence and destruction. There are already reports of significant casualties. This is an extremely dangerous situation for the Ukrainian people and the world.
Unfortunately for America, the Republicans are approaching Russian aggression as a political opportunity as opposed to a national security issue. The Republican approach was embodied by this tweet sent immediately after President Biden addressed the nation from the account of the House Republicans:
The days of politics ending at the water’s edge are long gone. Even by the standards of today’s politics, this tweet stands out for cynicism, opportunism, and overall offensiveness. This is not a one-off from an overly aggressive social media staffer. A Republican National Committee staff member sent a nearly identical tweet at the same time.
Ultimately, it’s important to understand what the Republicans are plotting, what it could all mean, and how Democrats should respond.
Understanding the Republican Strategy
Are there Republicans who legitimately disagree with the Biden Administration’s plan to deal with Russian aggression? Sure. But they are few and far between. And honestly, the Republican Party lost the benefit of the doubt on national security issues the moment they ran this ad comparing Democratic Senator Max Cleland to Osama Bin Laden.
The Republican message on Ukraine is all over the map. They are calling Biden weak, simultaneously claiming his sanctions won’t do enough or will do too much, arguing he is unfocused or is too focused on Putin.
This Republican incoherence is not by design. In some cases, it reflects legitimate differences in the party (i.e. pro-fascist v. fascist-curious), but it’s mostly a bunch of dumb people saying whatever dumb thing first pops into their pea brains. However, the strategic confusion ends up being a feature, not a bug. Republicans are — somewhat inadvertently — setting up a "heads we win, tails you lose" dynamic on the Ukrainian issue. They want to attack Biden for being weak AND attack him if sanctions lead to higher gas prices or other disruptions to American life.
For decades, the Republicans viewed politics primarily through the prism of strength and weakness. This worldview is why they hammered Michael Dukakis for his poorly chosen photo op in a tank. It’s why Republicans tried (and failed) to portray Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as effete elites. And it’s why Trump spent so much time in 2016 pushing misogynistic notions and conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton’s health. Weakness has been a consistent theme in Republican criticism of Biden since the Afghanistan withdrawal started his political troubles last summer. Too weak to protect Americans. Too weak to deal with inflation. Too weak to get recalcitrant members of his party on board with his agenda.
In Russia’s aggression, the Republicans see a golden opportunity to portray Biden as weak. Put another way, the Republicans will root for American failure if they think it will increase their chances of gaining political power.
What the Country Thinks
From a political perspective, foreign policy is 90 percent downside for sitting presidents. There are exceptions, of course. Obama received a political boost from the Bin Laden raid and diplomatic agreements with Cuba and Iran. Widely praised endeavors — at home or abroad — are good. But on the international stage, those wins are few and far between. More often, the public sees the president focusing too much on something they don’t care about and not enough on what they do — the economy. Frustratingly, the public holds foreign policy troubles against presidents but ignores or discounts presidential successes.
The polling shows that the current situation with Russia is no different. Biden and his team are omnipresent in Russia. This is probably the right communications strategy to prepare the country and unite the world, but it has short-term domestic consequences. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll shows that only 26 percent of respondents want the U.S. to have a major role in the dispute.
Obviously, the Biden Administration has no choice but to use their limited power to punish Putin for the invasion. But there is little to no public appetite for domestic sacrifice. A Politico/Morning Consult poll found that a majority of Americans and four in ten Democrats would blame Biden for an increase in gas prices due to sanctions on Russia.
In an election where inflation is the number one issue, this is suboptimal.
I don’t want to sugarcoat it. The politics of this are not great. The Biden Administration can do everything right and still pay a price simply because all of the media attention on Russia is obscuring their efforts to fight inflation and control the pandemic. The Biden White House should remain above the fray and focus on the crisis at hand. But the rest of us are not politically powerless.
First, there is a bright spot in the polling — an Achilles heel for the Republicans. The most prominent Republicans in the country crossed over from being Biden critics to become Putin advocates. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised Putin. Tucker Carlson is using twisted logic to side with Putin over Biden. Last and certainly least, Donald Trump even praised Putin as “very savvy” and called the aggression “genius.”
To say this approach is bad politics is a dramatic understatement. A CBS News/YouGov poll from earlier this month found that only four percent of Americans think the U.S. should support Russia in the negotiations over Ukraine.
We have seen Republicans take the unpopular positions of random activists and junior members of Congress and ascribe them to the entirety of the Democratic Party. We don’t have to do something that cynical or difficult. Trump is the leader of the Republicans. Tucker Carlson is a leading voice. Pompeo is kind of a loser, but he was Secretary of State. Every Republican must answer for this pro-Putin rhetoric.
Second, Democrats can aggressively call out the Republicans for putting the interests of their party over national interest. They are wearing their cynicism on their sleeves. Within hours of the invasion’s onset, Trump appeared on Fox News blaming Biden and excusing Putin. Presidents are not above criticism in times of international crisis, but the Republican messages reek of politics.
There should be a price to pay for craven political opportunism during a global catastrophe.