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Once upon a time, the roles were reversed.
Democrats were, if anything, skeptical of foreign intervention. Many, especially in the liberal and progressive wings of the party, saw war as inhumane, policing the world as folly and the Pentagon as bloated. Humbled by failure in Vietnam, the party that gave us Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern and Jimmy Carter pursued cooperation rather than conflict as the order of the day.
Republicans, on the other hand, were more unabashedly hawkish — willing to flex U.S. military muscle and project power in support of an American-led world order. For the most part, they believed that if you gave the Soviets, the Chinese or Islamic State so much as an inch in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East or elsewhere, dominoes would begin to tumble. Peace through strength was the mantra.
But today, that paradigm is being flipped on its head.
Earlier this month, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to announce his candidacy for president, said that further support for Ukraine is not a " vital interest " of the United States. He brushed off the war between Russia and Ukraine as a "territorial dispute." Last week he "clarified" that Russia was in the wrong, but reiterated that he would oppose an escalation of American involvement.
His comments align DeSantis, to one degree or another, with former President Donald Trump, whose isolationist, "America first" impulses are well known. About Ukraine, Trump has said, "That war has to stop, and it has to stop now."
DeSantis also lines up with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the new House speaker, who has vowed that Republicans won't agree to a " blank check " for aid to Ukraine.
And he lines up with plenty of other conservative Republicans, such as Kari Lake (the loser in last year's race for Arizona governor), who sounded in a recent speech more like Tom Hayden than Ronald Reagan: "We are living on Planet Crazy, where we have hundreds of billions of dollars of our hard-earned American money being sent overseas to start World War III."
Yes, there's been pushback from the Republican establishment. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. Lindsey Graham and former United Nations Ambassador and 2024 presidential candidate Nikki Haley, for example, are among those who support robust aid for Ukraine.
But the reality is that the America-first approach is gaining traction because it has significant backing from Republican voters, 40% of whom believe the U.S. is giving too much aid to Ukraine, compared with only 15% of Democrats who agree, according to the Pew Research Center.
While those changes are rippling through the GOP, President Joe Biden and the Democrats are swinging the other way: We'll stick with our Ukrainian allies "as long as it takes," Biden says, as he gives them more howitzers, rocket systems and armored vehicles, because nothing less than the American-led international order is at stake.
Biden — channeling Ronald Reagan, not Jimmy Carter or Barack Obama — describes Ukraine as just one front in a global battle between autocracy vs. democracy. Do you want to live in a repressive world led by Russia's Vladimir Putin, China's Xi Jinping and their allies or in an enlightened liberal democracy of the sort we have in the U.S. and Europe?
As Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, put it: "Today it is Russia and Ukraine. Tomorrow it will be other nations."
It's true that the U.S. is not actually fighting a war, just arming its allies in Ukraine. But according to a survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, liberal Democratic voters now support putting boots on the ground around the world more than independents, moderate Democrats or Republicans. More than half of liberal Democrats would support sending U.S. troops to intervene if Russia invaded a NATO ally, or if North Korea invaded South Korea or if China invaded Taiwan.
So what's going on here? Are we witnessing a true ideological realignment that will endure? Or is this merely situational, the result of some combination of Putin's invasion, the upcoming presidential election and the Trump phenomenon?
Several experts told me I shouldn't assume a long-term shift is underway. They suggested there was a lot of political posturing and jockeying going on, especially because of Trump's disruptive presence in the 2024 race.
"The pendulum is swinging, but I'm not sure we have clarity on how far it's swinging or exactly in what direction," said Andrew Bacevich, chairman of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
Bacevich's position is that there's not that much difference between the parties in any case. He argues that the party in power — whichever it is — tends to emphasize the importance of strong American leadership and the minority party generally shows more sensitivity to risks, costs and tradeoffs.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, doubts we're seeing a true realignment. He argues that plenty of progressive Democrats are unenthusiastic about our involvement in Ukraine. And while it's true that GOP voters are growing more skeptical of a muscular foreign policy, he's not sure it'll last.
"Their leaders are saying what they think they have to say to get the nomination," he said. "The interesting question is whether Trumpism, with its isolationist impulse, will dominate in Republican circles after Trump is off the scene. Or will there be a return to 41ism and 43ism?"
Haass was referring to the more internationalist policies of President George H.W. Bush and his son. (Remember Iraq?)
For my part, I'd like to see less ideology, less rhetoric, less jockeying over 2024 — and more pragmatism. In a sane world, Republicans and Democrats would come together in search of a coherent policy that would help the people of Ukraine in their fight against Putin's unjustifiable aggression, without letting us drift into a new Cold War or get dragged into an escalating quagmire.
That's too much to hope for, though, given the sorry state of American politics.