The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP is about to come after Biden on Ukraine

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, speaks to reporters after a Republican strategy meeting at the Capitol. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Rick Wilson is a former Republican political strategist and co-founder of the Lincoln Project.

The American politics of Russia’s war on Ukraine look calm on the surface but are about to get ugly.

Republicans slapped blue-and-yellow flag pins on their Jos. A. Bank suits and took a short break from anti-vaccine bleating and blaming President Biden for global inflation. This moment of unity looked promising; who could miss all those congressional Republicans cheering as loudly as Democrats during Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to Congress?

It cannot last. Republican leaders are desperately trying to find a weak spot in Biden’s handling of this war. Even if there is unity for a moment, they will soon lay any mistake, or misstep, or outcome where the Russians prevail at Biden’s doorstep.

If that sounds cynical, I would ask: Have you met my former party?

It wants to play the most beloved game in the GOP playbook: that the Democrats are weak on defense. In my decades as a GOP ad maker and strategist, I made some pretty notorious ads about it. And I can tell you they work.

Democrats too often miss the optics and politics of foreign policy, hoping good choices will outweigh the dark, emotional games Republicans like to play when it comes to national security.

Republicans specialize at turning Democratic successes overseas into disasters. It’s a slow-burn strategy designed to trigger an outrage culture that doesn’t stop at the water’s edge. GOP leaders don’t care about reality; their audience doesn’t care about the truth, and their political media apparatus always stays on message.

Dana Milbank: Stop buying from these companies. They’re funding Putin’s war.

Donald Trump bungled the 2020 negotiations ending the war in Afghanistan, freeing the Taliban at scale and setting a date certain for U.S. withdrawal. When Biden stuck with that commitment to exit, Republicans leveraged the inevitable chaos in Kabul into a cataclysmic political fable; if only the weak Democrats had held on for another year, victory was ensured.

Similarly, the terrorist attack on the Benghazi facilities in 2012 was another faux scandal-in-a-box because it gave Republicans — me included — a populist tale to be weaponized, embedded in the right’s mythos and deployed repeatedly. I distinctly recall being in a focus group that year and watching the pollster tease from participants how Benghazi could be used to offset the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden under Barack Obama and transformed into a political millstone for Hillary Clinton.

The go-to notion that “Democrats have endangered your family” in every international moment from Vietnam to 9/11 is not about altering Democratic foreign policy or improving our national security; it is about peeling off White, working-class (and lately, Hispanic working-class) voters and turning them into reliable Republicans. The idea that Democrats are overcommitted to diplomacy and international institutions became standard GOP messaging long ago.

Democrats haven’t sorted out a simple reality yet; the GOP will soon try to flank Biden on Ukraine. Some, like Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), will try to box him in on a no-fly zone — ignoring the negative externality of a nuclear exchange — while others will push him further than he wants on lethal aid to Ukraine. Win or lose, the GOP will declare that Biden blew his main chance. Even many sober foreign policy thinkers in the GOP will try to leverage Democratic “weakness” in Ukraine in the 2022 elections.

But let’s also be honest about the landscape: A not-so-secret faction of the GOP is rooting for the bad guys in this one. We’ve already heard that from the Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) wing of the party. Many Republican base voters are dictator-curious and believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is the savior of White, straight, law-and-order Christianity; the virus of Trumpian hyper-nationalism, with its constant call to reject alliances, diplomacy, smart power and multilateral action, has deeply infected the GOP.

Not long ago, the two parties worked together to face down, contain and repudiate Russian aggression and Moscow’s oppression of free peoples. From Truman to Eisenhower, from JFK to Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the Soviets respected American resolve. A few Republicans might yet hear the call to that unity in the face of Putin’s war, aware that Biden is leading the fight about the shape of the world in the coming century.

But if you think the majority of today’s GOP will leave politics at the water’s edge much longer, think again.