Since the days of Ronald Reagan, we’ve been told Democrats are weak, that they aren’t willing to stand up to dictators. It’s as much the gospel of the Republican Party as tax cuts.
But now Republicans face a major national security choice.
Who will they pick in 2024 to stand up to the greatest threat to democracy since the Cold War – the evil that is Vladimir Putin.
This week, we got a pretty good look at their dismal options.
Ron DeSantis, perhaps the party’s leading candidate, shrugged off the notion that Putin is much of a threat at all.
“The fear of Russia going into NATO countries and all that and steamrolling, you know, that has not even come close to happening,” DeSantis said on Fox. “I think they’ve shown themselves to be a third-rate military power.”
Somewhere, Vladimir Putin must have been smiling.
In his state of the nation address this week, the Russian dictator made it clear he isn’t backing away from his vision of an expansive Russian empire that could end up threatening our NATO allies.
In the words of one analyst who studies Russia, Putin is “much more radicalized and ready for escalation.”
His suspension of the only remaining nuclear arms control treaty with the U.S. is just another sign that he’s more dangerous than ever.
Arms control experts and foreign policy hands are alarmed about all this. But Ron DeSantis has blinders on. Instead, he downplays Putin’s threat and is more intent on setting the curriculum for local school districts in Florida, trying to convince Illinois cops to move to the Sunshine State and taking over the board overseeing development at Walt Disney World in Orlando.
President Biden, however, is clear-eyed.
The president that Republicans love to make fun of as weak and addle-brained boldly traveled to Kyiv this week, an historic trip in which he stood resolutely with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and, the next day in Poland, rallied the world to the cause of democracy.
“President Putin’s craven lust for land and power will fail,” the president declared.
The message to Putin was clear. The contrast with DeSantis even more so.
Not all Republicans are as near-sighted as DeSantis. At least Nikki Haley realizes the threat Putin presents to the free world. In Iowa this week, the former UN ambassador said: “It’s more than just about Ukraine. This is a war about freedom. And it’s a war we have to win.”
Donald Trump is no real obstacle to Putin’s imperial vision, either. Trump complained about Biden defending other countries’ borders and posted a video this week that amounted to four minutes of babble in which he claimed he’d stop the “warmongers” in the Pentagon and State Department. And he suggested he could stop the war in Ukraine – in 24 hours, no less!
If DeSantis left Putin smiling, Trump must have had him rolling in the aisles.
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Among the Republicans’ other possible choices: Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who actually had the guts to praise Biden while calling on the GOP not to lose its resolve.
Still, his was a lonely voice in a party where many seem to be determined to abandon the Reagan legacy.
The question is, who will Republican choose?
Americans in both parties, Iowans included, have tended not to care that much about foreign policy when it comes to picking presidents. They’re more likely to focus on concerns close to home.
The 2004 and 2008 elections were different, when the Iraq War and terrorism had a major impact.
This year, however, foreign threats aren’t too high on the GOP priority list. Leading Republicans are too busy worrying about “wokeness” and trying to convince America’s parents that teachers are grooming their kids with pornography. Meanwhile, many in the party’s populist wing would rather just shrink from the world stage and hide at home.
Could this be the year when Democrats are seen as the party to keep America safe from foreign threats?
That would be a big change. Most polls over the last four decades have said Americans tend to trust Republicans more than Democrats on this issue. That trust has not always been well-placed, but the thought that Democrats are weak has been embedded in our psyche for the last 40-plus years, and it’s hard to change a lifetime of messaging by Republicans and many in the media.
This may be the time, however.
If you listen to some of the leading right-wing commentators, it’s clear they are hostile to those who are standing up to Putin; they are more eager to appease the Russian dictator; or, like Ron DeSantis, they’ll downplay the threat or dismiss it altogether.
In some corners of the right-wing, they even praise Putin, rather than deplore his depravity.
Maybe it’s Joe Biden’s age. At 80 years old, he experienced the Cold War. He knows what a dangerous Russia looks and sounds like.
It’s true Biden is not as aggressive in sending weapons to Ukraine as some hawks – or Zelensky – would like. He worries that Putin will react by deploying nuclear weapons or vastly expand the war, and it’s made him cautious.
It’s a delicate balance. Still, Biden’s trip to Ukraine shows he is committed standing up for democracy.
Now, Republicans have to decide whether they are, too.
It’s too bad they don’t have much to choose from. We’re told the GOP’s leaders in Congress have resolve, but so far, it’s not evident in the leading candidates for the White House. Maybe that will change. Still, judging by what he said this week, it’s clear that a Ron DeSantis presidency would be bad news for Ukraine, not to mention the free world.
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I find myself commenting about your articles more that I have to any media before. I think it's because they are thoughtful and timely. Unfortunately the Republican party is still the party of Trump and if your recall, Trump loves dictators and autocrats because he would like to be one. I often wondered what the Russians had on Trump or how much money he owed them. DeSantis is Trump with less baggage and will not disagree with him out of fear of losing Trump supporters if he wins the primary. I'm not as worried about Putin going after NATO allies as other countries that border Russia that are not members, but would like to be. Russia may not be the military force it once was but as long as they have an arsenal of nuclear weapons we have to take their aggression seriously. I long for the "silent majority" of reasonable Republican who had our country's safety at the forefront of their thinking.
DeSantis is a contemporary Neville Chamberlain. He is also speaking from his heart not because he is afraid of authoritarian states, like Russia, but because Putin mirrors his thirst for control and intolerance for dissent.