It’s become hard to find a poll of American voters ahead of next month’s midterm elections that doesn’t portend disaster for the Democrats. Voters are breaking in the GOP’s direction, and the issues Republicans dominate—from inflation to crime to immigration—are cutting through the noise. Meanwhile, Democrats are struggling to generate traction on abortion. They’re emptying out America’s petroleum reserves at a record pace. And Democratic groups are cutting seizure-inducing ads designed to sexy up what amounts to a bribe aimed at getting young people to vote.
The tea leaves aren’t hard to read. All Republicans have to do to maximize their environmental advantages is not make any sudden moves. At this point, House Speaker-in-waiting Kevin McCarthy careened through the drywall like the Kool-Aid man bearing plans almost no one asked for and which are all but certain to become a liability for the party he hopes to lead.
“I think people are gonna be sitting in a recession, and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine,” McCarthy told Punchbowl News reporters this week when asked how a GOP House majority would approach Russia’s war of conquest and ethnic cleansing. “They just won’t do it.” While “Ukraine is important,” McCarthy added, the Republican majority’s priorities would be primarily domestic.
It would be imprudent to dismiss the notion that a Republican majority could be less inclined than Democrats to provide material support to Kyiv. More worryingly, Republican efforts to talk down the legitimacy of Ukraine’s cause and underemphasize the vital U.S. interests at stake in Europe could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Republican voters have followed their party’s leadership into box canyons before. But it would take work to convince rank-and-file Republican voters that cutting off Kyiv should be their priority.
Reuters polled American adults in early October and found that 73 percent continue to support the Ukrainian war effort, including two-thirds of self-described Republicans. One month earlier, Gallup found that 66 percent of all Americans support Ukraine’s effort to retake its territory by force, and most Republicans agreed with them. A July poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs pegged the GOP’s support for arming Ukraine at 68 percent compared with 72 percent of all respondents. These numbers are generally reflective of polling—both of American adults and Republican voters—from the outset of this conflict. From the initial invasion, to the siege of Kyiv, to the collapse of the Russian lines around Kharkiv, to today, with Ukraine putting pressure on territories Russia and its proxies have occupied since 2014, Americans’ views of the conflict have been largely static.
If the GOP majority hopes to defund Ukraine over the preference of a majority of voters, Republicans in leadership are going to have to make the case to the public. Every minute they spend doing that is a minute that isn’t spent addressing inflation, securing the border, supporting local law enforcement, curbing the efforts of social engineers to teach progressive cultural values in the classroom, and so on. In other words, the Republican majority would have to abandon the issues that got them the majority in the first place, and only to satisfy the fixations of a loud minority of populist agitators.
Not only would McCarthy commit his members to an uphill messaging campaign, he’d also be incepting internecine conflict within his own conference. Rep. Michael McCaul, who will likely chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee in a Republican-led House, told reporters just last week that the Biden administration isn’t doing enough to back Ukraine. He supports sending “longer-range artillery and additional air-defense systems” to the frontlines. “Better arming and equipping of Ukraine will help save lives and give Ukraine the capacity to end this war faster,” said Sen. Jim Risch, McCaul’s counterpart on foreign affairs in the Senate. Aides close to Mitch McConnell insist that he “is not going to shy away from continuing to support Ukraine,” which suggests even a GOP-led effort to let Ukraine’s funding quietly expire isn’t going to be so quiet.
Would McCarthy commit to an unpopular course of action that pits him against his own members? That seems unlikely. The prospect is rendered even less likely given how boneheaded the objections to backing Ukrainian security are.
Sure, Republicans back Ukraine, but not without any oversight of these funds. That’s a reasonable concern, which is why the aid appropriated by Congress for Ukraine was accompanied by provisions that require regular pertinent reports from the Pentagon and funds additional oversight via the State Department. Could there be more oversight? Of course. But the idea that there is “no meaningful oversight” of these funds, as populist weathervane Josh Hawley insists, is false.
Okay, but Americans aren’t going to be thrilled about a “blank check” for our partners abroad when Americans are hurting at home. In fact, a majority of the funds that are appropriated by Congress end up in American pockets—at least, those pockets that line the pants worn by American defense contractors and their employees. If the populist factions on the right are consistent in their support of taxpayer-backed industrial policy that subsidizes U.S. manufacturing jobs, this wouldn’t be an easy one to scrap.
As for the legitimately terrifying prospect that Vladimir Putin could suffer enough battlefield setbacks that he would use unconventional ordnance to even the playing field, it’s unclear how America’s retreat from the conflict would deter him in ways its looming presence does not. Nor does America’s contributions render it less prepared to confront Chinese aggression. In the zero-sum game of geopolitics, a loss for China’s junior partner on the Eurasian continent is a loss for Beijing, and every Russian battlefield casualty makes the prospect of retaking Taiwan by force that much less tantalizing.
Given how little sense McCarthy’s gesture makes, we must leave open the prospect that he was just saying what he thinks his audience wants to hear. As David Arakhamia, head of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s party in parliament, told Financial Times reporters, McCarthy personally assured him, “Ukraine in its war with Russia will remain a top priority even if they win in the elections.”
When it comes to supporting Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression, the path of least resistance for a Republican congressional majority would be continuity. Even if McCarthy wanted to mount a crusade against Kyiv’s cause, his fellow Republicans have a proven track record of ignoring him. The most troubling signal McCarthy’s comments send is that he is just as keen as everyone else to view the coalition he leads through the distorting prism of Twitter and primetime cable news. If his comments on Ukraine were a mistake, we can safely expect many more similar errors in the near future.