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DeSantis Uses Ukraine to Put Daylight between Himself and Other Republicans

Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), as he unofficially runs for president, is trying to build a brand that distinguishes him from his competition, particularly Donald Trump. It's evident that the Governor plans to veer hard right, on the theory that you have to win the primary first and then you can worry about the general. And this week, DeSantis has staked out an extreme position on the Ukraine War.

Note that, to a greater or lesser extent, all of the Republicans who are vying for their party's presidential nomination are anti-Ukraine War. The time in which the Republicans were the party of Ronald Reagan is as dead as the Gipper himself. However, most of them, including Trump, are taking somewhat mushy positions in which they say they want to "negotiate" an end to the war. As if the possibility of negotiating hasn't occurred to Joe Biden, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, or anyone else in a position of power. (It should be noted that Trump also favors allowing Russia to keep parts of Ukraine.)

DeSantis' position, articulated in a statement broadcast on the program of Fox entertainer Tucker Carlson, is that what is going on in Ukraine does not affect the United States' "vital national interests," and that Americans should not be involved in a "territorial dispute" between Russia and Ukraine. Consequently, if he becomes president, he plans to withdraw all U.S. support for Ukraine. That is a position not too far removed from "let Russia have ALL of Ukraine."

When it comes to policy, we don't know what DeSantis actually believes, or if he actually believes anything. The Governor is particularly obvious, in the same way Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is, about his predilection for adopting whatever position he thinks is most politically expedient. And there is no doubt that his stance on Ukraine is informed by the abundant polling on the issue that shows that only a minority of Republican voters are pro-aid-for-Ukraine. For example, the latest from Ipsos, which was just published yesterday, has 42% of Republicans supporting that position. That is in line with other recent polls on the matter.

We suspect that there is something else factoring into the Governor's thinking, namely the Vietnam War. In 1967, support for that war remained high among Americans. Then, in early 1968, which was a presidential year, the dam collapsed. And so, everyone running that year ran on some version of a "Let's end this war" platform. It turned out the winner, Richard Nixon, meant "Let's end this war by escalating it," but he conveniently did not make that clear until after he was elected. In any event, unlike Trump, DeSantis knows U.S. history. So, it's very plausible that he's done the math, decided that Vietnam 1967 and Ukraine 2023 are similar, and has concluded that it's wise to be ahead of the curve.

There are some flaws in the governor's analysis, however. The first is that American support for Vietnam shifted so rapidly because American soldiers were dying by the thousands, and in service of an end goal that was not especially clear. In addition domestic opposition to the war was largely fueld by the military draft. In contrast, the costs that Ukraine is imposing on the U.S. are much less severe and there is no draft now. Further, the victory conditions could not be clearer: Russia needs to stop fighting and withdraw to its original territory.

That leads us to a second point. It's true that many Republicans do not support Ukraine. But pretty much everyone else does. Even with the tepid Republican support, the overall American support for Ukraine is around 65%. That means that the vast majority of Democrats and independents are on board with helping Ukraine. Further, the numbers haven't changed much in the last year. So, the odds are they're not going to change much in the next year. And being on a position that only one in three Americans agrees with is not a great place to be in a general election. Especially when you are also on other extreme minority positions (like restricting abortion).

DeSantis' Ukraine talk would also seem to speak to his less-than-stellar foreign policy chops. It's true that he's much more educated than Trump is, and that he served in the military, and that he even served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee while he was a representative. But the United States' relationship with the world is a giant and complicated puzzle with all sorts of moving pieces. It takes a lot of experience to really get a full grasp on both the foreign policy, and on the politics of foreign policy. And DeSantis just doesn't have that level of experience.

You know who does have that experience, on the other hand? A bunch of the Republicans serving in the Senate. And they are horrified by what DeSantis is saying. From a foreign policy perspective, they understand well that everything is interconnected, and that a decision in one area (e.g., Ukraine) will have echoes in many, many other areas. From a foreign policy politics perspective, they understand that you don't want to make a bold, short-term decision, and then end up holding the bag, long-term.

For example, consider the response of Sen. Todd Young (R-IN), who will never be confused for a namby-pamby liberal, to DeSantis' remarks:

It does seem consistent with many of the things we're hearing on television and certain friends in the Republican Party. But I don't think that this is a long-game political strategy, and it's certainly not a long-game national security strategy. I really am concerned that he's—and other members of our party—aren't prepared to show resolve in this region because it will have broader implications in the Asian Pacific and the Middle East and beyond. This is the one thing that Vladimir Putin seems to be hoping for right now, which is just to outlast the U.S. It seems plain that if we're not assisting Ukraine and their efforts right now, we're going to have NATO treaty allies with the Russian army standing on their border. The security implications of that are grave and could require an even greater expenditure of resources moving forward.

Translation: "Shut up, Ron. You don't know what you're talking about."

We shall see how DeSantis' position evolves, or if it evolves at all, once he is an actual presidential candidate, and as the election of 2024 draws nearer. He is probably thinking that there is still time to pivot on key issues like Ukraine if the situation on the ground calls for it in, say, February of next year. He might be right but, in the Internet age, and in an election where your opponents on both sides of the aisle are packing hard drives full of footage that can be used to take you down a peg, he might well be wrong. (Z)

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