The latest example came Wednesday. The National Republican Senatorial Committee debuted a defund-themed ad in which Chairman Rick Scott (Fla.) says, “Here’s the Democrat[ic] plan for America: crime.” As The Washington Post’s David Weigel noted, though, the ad actually features b-roll of an interview in which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) quite literally distanced her party from that effort.
If the GOP wants to own this issue, though, it might want start reining in some of its own. That’s because we’re seeing some of the conservative movement’s most prominent figures dip their toe into the same kind of extremely dicey defund territory.
The same day the NRSC ad launched, a Republican congressman’s tweet urged that the defund efforts should focus on the FBI, while other prominent Republicans and conservatives inched toward an effort to withhold funding from no less than the military.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) is the one responsible for the (quickly aborted) attempt to urge the defunding of the FBI. He tweeted Wednesday morning, “If Democrats want to defund the police, they should start with the FBI.” The tweet was deleted one minute later, according to ProPublica. If we’re being charitable, he wasn’t necessarily calling for the FBI to be defunded, full-stop — just that he viewed it as being the ripest for defunding if Democrats are bent on targeting law enforcement. Except this is also coming from a guy who has recently found himself under federal investigation.
Given that latter fact, it seems possible Gaetz decided better of the effort because of his own situation, rather than how it might reflect on his party.
But even just later in the day, Gaetz played a significant role in what ultimately resulted in allies promoting another effort to withhold funding — this time from the military.
Gaetz was first and foremost among House Republicans in pressuring military figures about supposedly “woke” policies, including critical race theory. Gaetz pressed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on the topic, drawing combative responses from the retired general.
By Wednesday night, exchanges like Gaetz’s blossomed into a segment on Fox News in which host Laura Ingraham proposed withholding military funding until things like critical race theory are rooted out.
“Why is Congress not saying, ‘We’re not going to give you a penny until all of this is eradicated from the military budget?’ ” Ingraham said. “ ‘Nothing. This is my offer to you: nothing.’ That’s what I would say. I’m totally outraged by [Austin] and his ridiculous response today.”
Ingraham doubled down later. “Go after their budget,” she said at the end of the segment. “The only thing they understand is their budget, their money. That’s it. That’s all they understand.”
While Ingraham’s comment has gone viral, this actually isn’t the first time she’s gone down this road. Back in February, she urged Republicans to “refuse to allow a single U.S. taxpayer dollar to fund this ideological and un-American purge of the U.S. military, or expect a lot of us to push for steep cuts in military spending.”
What has gotten even less attention than Ingraham’s comments, though, is that a Republican member of Congress suggested he agreed with them.
“No, you’re right, Laura,” said Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) immediately after the comment above. “I understand your anger, because I’m upset about it as well. You’re 100 percent correct. Congress should not be sending money to the military in order to teach critical race theory.”
Donalds suggested a narrower defunding effort than Ingraham — one focused on withholding funds for this specific purpose, which some Republicans have proposed. But Ingraham rather clearly suggested withholding all funds as leverage to make sure that change happened.
It’s also worth noting the stance Donalds has staked out previously on defunding the military. It turns out his own House website addresses precisely this issue, saying, “We cannot give in to reckless calls to defund and deplete our military.” Donalds was confronted Wednesday night with such a call to defund the military if it didn’t take specific action, and he indicated he agreed with it (while watering it down).
And that’s the danger in this for Republicans. Right now, these kinds of suggestions to defund the FBI or the military are very limited and remain on the fringes of the conservative movement. But that was also the case with “defund the police” on the left, and Republican strategists will be the first to tell you about how successful they supposedly were in attaching it to the broader Democratic Party. (That effort apparently remains very much alive, judging by the NRSC’s new ad Wednesday.)
It’s also not at all difficult to see it catching on even more, either. After all, it was just seven months ago that President Donald Trump vetoed an entire defense spending bill over the lack of a provision targeting social media companies, and Republicans were rather mute about it (while ultimately voting to override his veto). Republicans have also used the defund strategy before to try to kill off the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and they have significantly upped their criticism of military leadership in recent months. And Politico reported Wednesday that conservative groups like Heritage Action are pushing for inserting critical race theory prohibitions into must-pass legislation like a defense bill and a debt-limit increase.
This seems more about creating a politically advantageous culture war than anything else. But at some point you’d imagine certain portions of the base would demand practical action using the levers available to actually effect change — given the supposed gravity of the situation — like Ingraham did Wednesday. There aren’t many of those levers available to Republicans, beyond funding.
We’ve also seen the GOP set a precedent when it comes to attaching a limited “defund” movement to the broader opposing party. And it’s difficult to imagine a better argument for Democrats than that Republicans want to defund the military, which often polls as one of the most trusted and confidence-inspiring institutions in America. If you can use clips of Pelosi actually repudiating eliminating police in your ad attacking Democrats for “defund the police,” why not Donalds saying he agreed with Ingraham’s sentiment? Why not Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) nodding along as Ingraham said, “Go after their budget?” If Ingraham keeps it up — or others latch on to the cause — do Republicans continue to smile and nod?
We’ll see how this plays out in the coming days and weeks, but this is the kind of thing that has a tendency to mushroom. And it’s perhaps a predictable progression of a building effort to focus the anti-critical race theory efforts on the military.