But this week’s first GOP presidential debate — and recent comments on Ukraine by the 2024 GOP polling leader and former president, Donald Trump — show that unusual unity will face a stress test as the 2024 presidential campaign intensifies and the leading Republican contenders show antipathy toward the American backing of Ukraine.
There long has been an isolationist strain in the United States, particularly in the Republican Party, but rarely has it been shared by so many candidates for president.
On the debate stage in Milwaukee, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he would make additional U.S. aid “contingent” on European allies increasing contributions. Entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy called it “disastrous” that the U.S. government was “protecting against an invasion across somebody else’s border” and argued Ukraine funding would be better spent on the “invasion of our own southern border.”
Meanwhile, Trump, who did not participate in the first debate, has said he will end Russia’s invasion in one day if he wins back the White House. Even some of his Republican allies, like Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said that assertion was folly.
Trump also has called on Congress to withhold additional Ukraine funding until the FBI, IRS and Justice Department “hand over every scrap of evidence” on the Biden family’s business dealings.
Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland and distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, said that Republican Congressional leadership and Biden remain on the same page on providing Ukraine the assistance it needs.
Still, he said the prominent voices in the Republican field calling for the U.S. to slow or wind down support for Kyiv sends a troubling signal to allies about what the U.S. commitment could look like following the 2024 election and harkens back to the years when isolationists who pressured the U.S. to remain neutral during the first two years of World War II.
“The majority of elected Republicans in the committee chairs and the people with power in Congress are still solid,” Fried said. “When they attack the administration, it’s usually for not doing enough. But Trump and the Trump wannabes represent this other tradition in our history. And the last time this isolationist tradition was powerful in America, it led to catastrophic results.”
Biden campaign spokesman Kevin Munoz in a statement criticized “MAGA Republicans” on the debate stage for siding with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the Ukrainian people and alluded to Ramaswamy mocking U.S. politicians who have made the trip to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people.
At one point during Wednesday’s debate, Ramaswamy took a dig at former Vice President Mike Pence and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, both of whom visited Kyiv this summer, for making a “pilgrimage” to “their Pope Zelenskyy” without doing the same for Americans impacted by Hawaii’s wildfires and crime and violence in U.S. cities.
Former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley on the debate stage slammed Ramaswamy, saying he was effectively standing with Putin and was being short-sighted about U.S. interests. “This guy is a murderer. And you are choosing a murderer over a pro-American country,” said Haley, who also previously served as the former South Carolina governor.
Publicly, the White House has stressed that key Republican lawmakers, notably the Senator Republican Leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, are largely in agreement on the need to continue robust assistance to Ukraine.
The Biden administration earlier this month called on Congress to provide more than $13 billion in emergency defense aid to Ukraine and an additional $8 billion for humanitarian support through the end of the year. The United States has committed more than $60 billion in aid to Ukraine since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion. That includes more than $43 billion in military aid.
“We believe that the support will be there and will be sustained even if there are some dissident voices on the other side of the aisle,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters earlier this week. “We believe that at the core there is still a strong bipartisan foundation of support for our Ukraine policy and for supporting and defending Ukraine.”
Support among the American public for providing Ukraine weaponry and direct economic assistance has softened with time. An AP-NORC poll conducted in January 2023 around the one-year mark of the conflict, found that 48% favored the U.S. providing weapons to Ukraine, down from the 60% of U.S. adults who were in favor of sending Ukraine weapons in May 2022.
While Democrats have generally been more supportive than Republicans of offering weaponry, their support dropped slightly from 71% to 63% in the same period. Republican support dropped more, from 53% to 39%.
Dozens of Republicans in the House, and some GOP senators, have expressed reservations about — and even voted against — spending more federal dollars for the war effort. Many of those Republicans are aligning with Trump’s objections to the U.S. involvement overseas.
“It’s very easy to say ‘I’d rather spend money on a bridge in West Virginia than a bridge on Ukraine.’ That on a superficial level makes sense,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative Washington think tank. “We’re witnessing a struggle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party right now and the Ukraine debate is a proxy of that.”
Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Pennsylvania, said the handling of the Ukraine war isn’t as salient to the electorate writ large as the economy, health care, immigration, abortion and some other issues. But polling suggests that concerns about the costs of the war resonate with working-class Republican primary voters.
On the flip side, Borick said Biden is not likely to win votes solely on his handling of Ukraine. But how the war plays out in the months ahead could help or diminish the president’s broader argument about his administration’s competency and success at restoring U.S. leadership back on the international stage after four years of Trump’s “American first” foreign policy approach.
“Right now, Ukraine isn’t as prominent an issue for voters, but we’re seeing Trump, Ramaswamy and DeSantis setting the table to raise the question later in the campaign of how much U.S. treasure we’re spending over there that we could be spending at home,” he said.