Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), a probable presidential candidate, has decided that if you can’t beat the pro-Putin wing of the Republican Party, then join them. He declared that Russia’s brutal and unjustified war of aggression against a sovereign Ukraine is actually “a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia” and that protecting Ukraine is not a “vital” national interest of the United States. His implicit agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin that Ukraine has no right to territorial integrity contradicts the view of 140 United Nations member countries and gives oxygen to the Russian propaganda effort. (If Mexico invaded Texas, would it be a “territorial dispute”?) DeSantis’s betrayal of Ukraine (delivered in a statement read on Monday on pro-Putin propagandist Tucker Carlson’s show, no less) is an ominous indication of where DeSantis and the GOP base are heading on the defense of democracy and American foreign policy.
DeSantis has chosen to cast his lot with the crowd that admires Putin’s army as the antithesis of the supposedly “woke” U.S. military. In doing so, DeSantis has simultaneously flip-flopped on a major issue, betrayed a core U.S. national interest (in defending democratic allies against international aggression) and signaled that pro-Putin foreign policy rhetoric is an essential component of a MAGA candidate’s identity.
His move serves to divide the GOP. While MAGA voices in the House get a disproportionate amount of attention, the lion’s share of House and Senate Republicans (especially Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky) strongly endorses support for Ukraine. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and former New Jersey governor Chris Christie were among the Republicans who slammed DeSantis. Rather than seek to pull together that contingent of Republicans, DeSantis has chosen to out-Trump defeated former president Donald Trump and cozy up to the far right. (By contrast, former vice president Mike Pence and former ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, who has announced her presidential candidacy, have reiterated their support for Ukraine.)
counterpointWhat Pete Buttigieg could learn from Ron DeSantis
DeSantis, like Putin apologist Trump, might have misjudged the party whose nomination he might seek. The majority of Americans, more than 70 percent, favor our role in the defense of Ukraine, and more than 90 percent have a negative view of Russia. In the 2024 general election, President Biden would love nothing more than to seize the mantle as the defender of strong American foreign policy and leadership, NATO solidarity, and protection of democracy, thereby attracting support from many independents and even the traditional, hawkish wing of the GOP exemplified by figures such as former congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) (who bashed DeSantis for forgetting “the lessons of Ronald Reagan”). In other words, DeSantis is doubling down on the Trump strategy of ingratiating himself with the core MAGA base at the expense of alienating the rest of the electorate.
DeSantis did not always sound this way. CNN reports: “As a conservative congressman, DeSantis, now a potential presidential hopeful, urged sending ‘defensive and offensive’ weapons to Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 and even voted to refuse to fund a new missile defense treaty with Russia until they withdrew from Ukraine.” But that position apparently did not mesh with his current self-image as a cultural warrior, primarily concerned with “wokeness” (which many see as a cover for racism, xenophobia and homophobia). DeSantis is setting himself up for the accusation that he is too unsteady to be commander in chief.
DeSantis might have miscalculated the appetite for MAGA extremism (just as polling in deep-red Florida shows opposition to a six-week abortion ban and attacks on higher education). Even worse, in his willingness to throw Ukraine into the jaws of the Russian bear, DeSantis gives Putin hope that if he can hold out beyond the 2024 U.S. presidential election, the West’s united front will crumble. When it is imperative to convince Russia that its war is hopeless, DeSantis’s declaration — purely for domestic political advantage — has undercut efforts to accelerate Russian capitulation. Only when Putin is convinced that the West will remain united, whatever the outcome of future elections, will he be convinced to give up on his dream of conquest. As Cheney said, “Weakness is provocative and American officials who advocate this type of weakness are Putin’s greatest weapon.”
Other Republican presidential contenders would be wise to differentiate themselves from DeSantis’s and Trump’s pandering to pro-Putin MAGA Republicans. If Haley, Pence and others want to stand out from the crowd and undercut the poll leaders’ position, calling them out for defeatism, weakness and fecklessness on national security would be an ideal place to start.