For years, it’s been a feature of the Republicans’ handling of Donald Trump. When he does something they’re obviously uncomfortable with, they either “didn’t see the tweet” or they treat it like the ramblings of an unwieldy and boisterous uncle, rather than a statement of a president of the United States.
It has now come for Ron DeSantis.
To many in the Republican Party, the Florida governor (R) has emerged as a more serious and electable 2024 replacement for Trump. But DeSantis’s dismissal of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a mere “territorial dispute” shorn of any vital U.S. interest has set off real panic in the GOP, as well as in the conservative Russia-hawk circles that once included DeSantis.
And much as with Trump, it’s a testament to how Republicans’ decision not to deal seriously with such sentiments — for fear of alienating not just Trump but also their base — often allows them to take hold, creating much bigger problems.
DeSantis’s statement has been met with an unusual degree of pushback in the GOP. Many senators flatly disagreed with it. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) even likened it to the “Neville Chamberlain approach,” comparing DeSantis to the British prime minister who infamously tried to appease Adolf Hitler.
And mixed in is an altogether familiar implication: that maybe DeSantis is just saying stuff — and that perhaps his position isn’t a well-reasoned one.
Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.): “We have a base that’s restless, and if he’s running for president, he probably needs to speak to that base a little bit. And that’s not to say it’s not his position, but I do think if he is the president of the United States and he has all that power, then hopefully he’s adequately briefed on the details to make the decision. But I also hope that this position evolves a little bit.”Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.): “Poll tested answers aren’t leading.”Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.): “It’s something that I think any one of the individuals who has an interest in working as the next president of the United States really needs to get a full briefing before they decide to make up their minds on this particular issue. … So we’ll see how it moves.”Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.): “I don’t know what he’s trying to do or what the goal is. Obviously, he doesn’t deal with foreign policy every day as governor.”
To be clear, DeSantis isn’t just the second-term governor of Florida; he also spent six years in Congress, during which he served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He weighed in repeatedly on the importance of protecting Ukraine from Russia.
During his last year in the House in 2018, DeSantis said Vladimir Putin “wants to reconstitute the Russian Empire,” and that “I think that he’s been a threat for a long time.” He even gently chided Trump for trying to forge a relationship with Putin.
DeSantis was a backbencher — a stark contrast to his newfound status as the next great GOP hope — but this is not someone you could dismiss as being unfamiliar with foreign policy matters or even Russia and Ukraine, specifically.
Perhaps the argument is that he’s not totally clued in to recent developments while serving down in Tallahassee. But even that is a rather striking argument to make. It’s basically saying that a would-be GOP presidential nominee is taking positions on matters of massive global import without taking care to fully understand the issue — and even that he’s just doing it for votes.
I’ll admit that I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if DeSantis’s position “evolves” or “moves” as Cramer and Rounds suggest it might. DeSantis does have a political reason to stake out this ground. That’s because this position, while perhaps not yet predominant in the GOP, is clearly the ascendant one. Also, the GOP nominating contest is almost completely Trump vs. DeSantis right now. And hewing to Trump’s position could take off the table an issue that animates the more activist, Ukraine-skeptical portions of the base.
But it’s also hugely significant that the two candidates who have locked down about 7 in 10 GOP votes are both effectively arguing for a more hands-off and conciliatory approach to Russia’s invasion. It’s the kind of development that would seem to go a long way in cementing that as the party’s overall posture.
And on that front, more hawkish Republicans have largely allowed the genie to escape the bottle.
They offered little more than gentle rebukes when then-President Donald Trump did things that legitimized Putin and appeared to take Putin’s word over the U.S. intelligence community. The same was true when Trump praised Putin’s “savvy” and “genius” as Putin was invading Ukraine a little more than a year ago.
More recently, GOP leaders have had relatively little to say as their party has drifted toward what is now DeSantis’s position — a process led by the more extreme voices like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. Polls show the progression toward their position has been remarkably steady over time.
Indeed, they only seemed to summon the desire to truly try to combat this rising tide in recent weeks, around the first anniversary of the invasion. Some, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have consistently argued that supporting Ukraine is not only the right thing to do, but also a good investment — both as a relatively inexpensive way to thwart Putin and as a deterrent to China and other adversaries. Republicans at Ukraine funding oversight hearings late last month by and large signaled support for Ukraine’s cause, even as they expressed concern about how the money was being spent. But that sentiment has been drowned out in the discourse.
McConnell in late February urged the media to focus more on where the rest of the GOP stood.
“I think there’s been way too much attention given to a very few people who seem not to be invested in Ukraine’s success,” he said, adding: “Don’t look at Twitter. Look at people in power.”
Less than three weeks later, that sentiment has now been severely undermined by the other GOP presidential front-runner signaling he’s not terribly invested in Ukraine’s success, either.
Maybe the hawks should’ve read the tweets — and dealt with the situation with a bit more urgency.