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Newsflash: Republicans Are Largely Faking Their Opposition to Ukraine War “Aid”
Unless you’re a particularly civic-minded resident of the Pittsburgh area, “Jeremy Shaffer” is not a name you’ve probably ever heard in relation to the 2022 midterm elections. It’s one of those names that might as well be a stand-in for “generic politician” — in this case, a generic Republican who has a very good chance of winning his race this week to become the next Representative for Pennsylvania’s 17th congressional district. Much as I’m loath to comment on anyone’s physical appearance, you gotta admit: Shaffer is pretty much a dead-ringer for what you’d mentally imagine if you had to close your eyes and conjure up an image of “Republican elected official his early-to-mid 40s.”
Shaffer has not made headlines for any especially controversial remarks, nor has he taken any especially noteworthy positions on anything. It’s exceedingly unlikely he’ll ever become a widely-known figure if he enters Congress in January. But paradoxically, this is why he’s significant — because it’s his species of Republican that is most modally representative of any forthcoming GOP majority. The vast bulk of the freshman class will be typified by the likes of Shaffer, not Marjorie Taylor Greene, or any other brash outlier personality on whom the media loves to fixate. So while the US government goes increasingly berserk in waging a multi-front global warfare campaign against at least two nuclear-armed powers, the responsibility to vote on relevant legislation will lie with elected officials whose political profile is strongly redolent of Shaffer’s.
That’s why I went to an event in Wexford, PA a few days ago featuring Dr. Oz — the impressively absurdist GOP Senate candidate, running in a can’t-make-this-up Theater of the Absurd race against Democratic nominee John Fetterman, who appears to require round-the-clock medical attention in order to vocalize a complete sentence. Now that he’s a committed GOP party-builder, the TV doctor Oz graciously shared billing at the Wexford event with Shaffer.
The principal strategy of Shaffer’s campaign appears to be: say as little as possible in hopes of coasting frictionlessly into Congress. And so his stated views on the Ukraine war amount to a handful of the vaguest possible soundbites that signal surface-level partisan criticism of the Biden Administration, while conveying almost nothing else of any substance. After the bizarre Oz rally wrapped up, I tried to glean some additional insight and asked Shaffer if he believes the US has been too generous, or too limited, in its ongoing “support” for Ukraine. He replied, “I don’t know the answer, I’d have to look into that.”
Hold on a second — this candidate for Congress hasn’t yet “looked into” the matter of Ukraine war policy? Days before an election in which he’s vying to become one of only 18 people in the entire state of Pennsylvania who’ll have the direct power to vote on relevant war appropriations? We’re down to the wire here, and Shaffer claims he’s just never found the time to “look into” this expansive US military intervention, which his own party leader Kevin McCarthy has repeatedly likened to an epic world-altering struggle against the modern-day version of Hitler. That’s reassuring.
Given his professed lack of knowledge, I slightly adjusted the frame of inquiry and asked Shaffer in general terms if he supports continuing US arms provision and economic subsidy to Ukraine. Shaffer replied, “I’d have to look at the bill” — even though I hadn’t asked him about any particular bill. As you can see, there are certain questions for which Republican candidates have a ready-made enthusiastic answer, and this isn’t one of them. Hoping for further details, I asked Shaffer if in principle he supports the current US policy of singularly arming and funding Ukraine’s entire war effort. To this he replied, “In principle we need to help them.” Asked again for the final time, in faint hope that anything of even minimal substance could be gleaned from the exchange, if he could be more specific in describing the sort of “help” he believes ought to be provided, Shaffer said: “Well, I’d have to look into that.”
And there’s the essence of your emblematic GOP politician who’s on course to declare victory this week — the ones we’ve been told ad nauseam represent an existential, irreversible threat to the very bedrock of the US constitutional order. Over and over again the Big Kahunas of the Democratic Party like Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and so forth have been sounding the alarm: if “insurrectionist” Republicans win majorities in Congress, they warn, it would deal a death blow to democracy. (Whether standard-fare everyman Republicans like Shaffer are included in this group, it’s sometimes hard to deduce.) Part of the Democrats’ democracy-obliteration thesis is that just as these MAGA extremists would harness the forces of violent authoritarian extremism on the home-front, so too would they capitulate to violent authoritarianism abroad, namely in the personage of Putin. In reality — which sadly tends to be less exciting — Shaffer gives every indication that he’ll simply defer to the baseline GOP consensus of noncommittal, multi-purpose hawkishness. When he declines to articulate any real position on Ukraine war policy, that should be read as tacit willingness to go along with whatever ends up decreed by the House GOP whipping operation. And there is every reason to believe that the House GOP whipping operation will remain steadfastly in favor of “helping” Ukraine, even if they’ve adopted a mildly ambiguous posture of late, in hopes of appealing to a subset of war-skeptical voters.
Behind the scenes, private assurances are being given that nothing of major consequence will change regarding US war policy with Congressional Republicans at the helm. Kevin McCarthy himself has reportedly been impressing upon colleagues that a fleeting comment he made about not giving Ukraine a “blank check” was massively over-interpreted — by no stretch did it mean that as Speaker of the House, McCarthy will seek to cut off “aid” to Ukraine. But this was never going to stop Democrats from feverishly seizing upon the comment, claiming it as evidence for their wider “threat to democracy” thesis — that Republicans are hell-bent on abandoning Ukraine to the villainous onslaught of Putin. Anyone who’s not addled by brain-malfunctioning partisanship, however, should have immediately understood the meaninglessness of McCarthy’s “blank check” wordage.
Consider an apt historical precedent. When she first became House Speaker after the 2006 midterms — won by Democrats in large part on a platform opposing the Iraq War — Nancy Pelosi also proclaimed that her incoming majority would no longer give George W. Bush a “blank check.” Yes, she used that exact phrase. And she elaborated that what the phrase meant was simply that there’d be all kinds of vigorous new “oversight” enforced by the legislative branch. Then, of course, within a matter of a weeks, Bush announced a giant “surge” of troops to Iraq; the newly Democratic-controlled Congress was no obstacle to this whatsoever. By May 2007, under the stewardship of Pelosi and Senate leader Harry Reid, Congress passed another $120 billion in supplemental war funding. (Biden voted for the bill, while Obama and Hillary were given a pass to inconsequentially vote against it, as they were busy shoring up their “liberal” credentials ahead of the 2008 presidential primary campaign.) And so it came to pass that the big anti-war triumph of the Democrats in the 2006 midterms would culminate in 2007 turning out to be the deadliest year of the entire war for US military personnel. If you don’t see a parallel in the current Republican posture toward Ukraine policy in 2022, you are either willfully deluding yourself for short-term partisan gratification, or just not accessing an accurate stream of information.
One interesting piece of information on this score came from an event I attended last week at the University of Pittsburgh featuring Fiona Hill, the former hardline “national security” official in the Trump Administration who melodramatically testified at the 2019 impeachment hearings — upbraiding Trump on live TV for his failure to appreciate the importance of militarizing Ukraine and antagonizing Russia. Though held on a college campus, 90% of the audience at Hill’s event looked to be around retirement age. The remaining 10% came off as the kinds of hardcore careerist students who chatter excitedly amongst themselves about their progress applying for internships at the State Department. (I literally heard this conversation taking place a seat over from me.) Anyway, after announcing that we all must accept “The West” is currently embroiled in “the third great power conflict” — World War III, more or less — Hill was worriedly asked by the moderator if she thought victorious Congressional Republicans would cut off “aid” to Ukraine, as has been apocalyptically foretold. Hill promptly assuaged these worries, revealing: “I have a lot of contacts with Republican senators in particular, some members of Congress, and also their staffs… a lot of the staffs are on the same page, on both the Democratic and Republican side… So what you’re hearing in rhetoric isn’t necessarily what we are hearing behind the scenes.”
Of course, the “rhetoric” Hill was referencing never signified much of anything in the first place. Even one of the Senate’s most consistently zealous interventionists, Marco Rubio, has expressed agreement in spirit with McCarthy’s “no blank check” comment. If you think this means in practice that Rubio is planning to “appease Putin” and cut off weapons shipments to Ukraine, I have a bridge in the Donbas to sell you. Ultimately, the “blank check” remark was at most a superficial campaign nostrum for McCarthy to communicate partisan opposition to Biden, while also avoiding any commitment to meaningfully oppose the underlying contours of Biden’s war policy.
Proving the fundamental emptiness of McCarthy’s comment, even a cross-section of Democrats have now adopted identical “no blank check” sloganeering. Chris Pappas, the incumbent Democratic Congressman in New Hampshire’s first district, declared at a debate last week that “Ukraine can’t get a blank check” — and he hastened to specify that this in no way detracted from his unwavering commitment to fully fund, supply, and operationally coordinate the Ukraine war effort for the indefinite future. Pappas’ opponent, Karoline Leavitt — once described by the New York Times as a “25-year-old hard right Republican” who’d been a junior press aide in the Trump White House — also contributed to the fruitful dialogue by declaring “we need to ensure” that any cut-off in funding to Ukraine “does not happen.” After being temporarily caught in that mildly extemporaneous moment, Leavitt pivoted to the standard “national security” spiel that GOP candidates have been trained to recite by centralized party outfits like the National Republican Congressional Committee anytime the Ukraine issue comes up. This spiel consists of bemoaning Biden’s general “weakness” on the world stage, thus enabling the candidate to bypass ever taking a tangible position on US policy in Ukraine.
Another incumbent Democratic congressman, Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, repeated a variation of the “blank check” line in a recent debate performance: “I favor more aid for Ukraine, I don’t favor giving them a blank check,” he said. As with Pappas, it was made perfectly clear by Cartwright that declining to offer a “blank check” would be no impediment at all in continuing the policy status quo.
Yesterday I had the good fortune to interview Cartwright’s GOP opponent, Jim Bognet, who was the first House candidate to be endorsed by Donald Trump in the 2022 election cycle. (Bognet served a brief stint in the Export-Import Bank, an obscure federal agency that few could ever hope to understand, between his tenure as Senior Vice President for the Glover Park Group — one of the premier “communications consulting firms” in DC.)
I noted to Bognet that after watching his debate with Cartwright, there appeared to be no discernible difference between their respective positions on Ukraine war policy. Bognet said:
Here’s my number one criticism of Mr. Cartwright and Joe Biden. They’ve been so weak on the world stage. Afghanistan happened, right. Cartwright didn’t have one word of criticism for Biden. I believe that we left 13 dead Americans there because he gave up Bagram Air Force Base. I believe that broadcast to the world that Joe Biden would not stand up for American interest. Then, Putin’s been telegraphing this invasion for like six months. Biden waited until after the invasion happened to say there would be any consequences. And my whole point is, weakness is provocative. We have seen that weakness and what I worry about is China and Taiwan. I feel like we’re going over a cliff.
Again, this answer from Bognet is a variation of the standard talking point furnished by the national party organizations. It really must be emphasized that GOP campaign rhetoric on Ukraine has been specifically designed for candidates to avoid articulating any tangible position. If you subject yourself to enough public appearances, debates, interviews, and so forth, the repetitive tedium of this talking point strategy is impossible to miss. When asked basic questions about their views on Ukraine war policy, Herschel Walker and countless others have instantly activated the pre-programmed “Biden weakness” line — which usually includes non sequitur criticism of the 2021 Afghanistan withdrawal, in lieu of substantively addressing Ukraine.
I continued with Bognet, asking: “So you don’t in principle oppose aid to Ukraine, right? It’s just a matter of adequate oversight?”
“A hundred percent,” he replied. “I want adequate oversight. I want the American people to know exactly what they’re paying for and exactly what the strategic goal is.”
I continued, “But generally, your operating principle is you want to continue militarily supporting Ukraine?”
He said: “I want to stop the Russian aggression. But I want to do it in a way that serves American interests.”
This disclaimer shouldn’t be necessary, but it is, given the prevalence of absolute jokers running for Congress: I appreciate that Bognet was willing to speak to me without throwing a fit or running away, unlike several of his potential future colleagues. But if you think the above answer indicates some intention to dramatically break with current US policy consensus, you have to be living in La La Land. While it could theoretically be useful for Congress to exert more oversight on Ukraine-related matters, all the oversight in the world makes no difference if the Republican majority is in fundamental agreement with the basic trajectory of the already-existing policy. Bognet also mentioned that the Biden Administration had not been forthright in explaining its broader strategic outlook on Ukraine, which is valid enough, but this doesn’t reveal anything about the aspiring Congressman’s own views. It’s a deflection uncannily reminiscent of the 2006 midterms, when Democrats campaigned on “anti-war” talking points that were ultimately just partisan anti-Bush grist — procedural complaints about Bush allegedly failing to produce a “clear strategy” enabled Democrats to avoid ever really addressing the elemental issues at hand with Iraq. This is the mirror image of what Republicans are doing right now.
If anything, the GOP’s ostensible demand for additional “oversight” related to the Ukraine war is frequently paired with demands for even more aggressive US intervention. Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) is the person who’s been organizing national campaign strategy on behalf of Senate Republicans this midterm cycle, and he’s poised to take on another prominent position within the Senate GOP caucus — perhaps even challenging Mitch McConnell for Majority Leader. Here’s what Scott told me back in July: “We need to help Ukraine beat Russia, but we also have to make sure we are not wasting our dollars.” According to Scott, improving oversight of US war policy would entail ramping up the US war effort. “Right now, we’ve got to do whatever we can,” he said. “I’m disappointed that the Biden Administration doesn’t feel the need to give them the weapons that they can defeat Russia. They slow-walk everything, everything takes too much time.” So that’s the kind of upgraded efficiency one can likely expect from incoming Republican congressional leadership.
It’s understandable that the mainline GOP position on Ukraine war policy is poorly understood by the public, because candidates in both parties are virtually never asked any informed and/or probing questions on the topic. To the extent journalists try to be “adversarial” along these lines, it’s usually the standard hectoring of Republicans for allegedly being captive to Putin.
Shortly after attending Dr. Oz’s Magical Mystery Tour last week, I went to a campaign event in Orange County, New York for GOP gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, at which a local GOP congressional candidate named Colin Schmitt also appeared. An aide for Schmitt initially agreed to an interview on foreign policy issues — then claimed to postpone the interview for logistical reasons, then stopped responding to my polite inquiries seeking to reschedule. “Colin Schmitt” is also not a name you’re likely to have heard unless you’re a particularly engaged resident of New York’s 18th congressional district. Sorry to say, but he also looks very close to what you’d mentally imagine for “thirty-something male Republican elected official.”
One of Schmitt’s strangest moves of late has been to release a statement in his capacity as New York State Assemblyman on the combat death of former US Marine Willy Cancel in Ukraine. Schmitt declared this American fatality showed “it is critical now more than ever that we present a united front” against Russia. What exactly he meant by “united front” is certainly a question I would have been eager to ask him, but responding to questions is apparently not his forte. Still, some clues as to Schmitt’s policy inclinations can be found in a tactic he chose to deploy in his big TV debate debut with incumbent Democratic Congressman Pat Ryan. As the below clip demonstrates, the whole “narrative” around Russia/Ukraine continues to be a multi-dimensional farce:
At a campaign event in Paramus, NJ this weekend, I watched as Bill Clinton slammed Kevin McCarthy for wanting to “get back in bed” with Putin and Iran, which makes absolutely no sense on any level, because if anything the purported involvement of Iran in the Ukraine war is strengthening the determination of Republicans to inflict total military defeat on Russia, since that would also be seen as a devastating blow to Iran. (All you have to do is remind Republicans that Iran “chants death to America” and “wants to wipe Israel off the map,” and they’re right back on board with the latest hardline proposal.) Severe misconceptions about the Republicans’ general predilection on Ukraine policy are typically generated by:
1) hallucinatory partisan mischaracterization by Democrats and media figures
2) self-serving rhetoric by Republicans themselves, in service of appealing to portions of the electorate that might be disenchanted with Biden’s war policy, mostly on partisan grounds — almost an exact parallel to what Democrats did in 2006 vis-a-vis Bush
For instance, Ohio GOP Senate candidate JD Vance is constantly described in popular media as among the most dangerously Putin-sympathetic Republicans because, as TIME magazine matter-of-factly asserted in a very Low IQ article, Vance “wants to end US support for Ukraine.” This is one of those folklore wives’ tales that eventually just kind of congeals into conventional wisdom, without anyone ever checking the details. Because it happens to not be true, as could be ascertained by a simple assessment of Vance’s own statements — rather than second-hand extrapolations which presuppose Vance as a poster-boy for the “pro-Putin” GOP.
In a local Ohio TV interview on September 4, Vance said the following: “Can we send defensive weapons to Ukrainians? Absolutely.” In an October 13 interview with David M. Drucker of the Washington Examiner, Vance reiterated the same point: “But my sense is that, American policy making — absolutely send some defensive weapons, I’ve never been opposed to that.” (Drucker helpfully passed along the full quote to me, which is paraphrased in the article.) The basic takeaway here is that Vance, like somewhere between 95% and 99% of his GOP colleagues preparing to enter Congress, does not oppose the foundational precept of US war policy in Ukraine — whatever grievances he might emphasize about the precise number of billions allocated, or the purported lack of “oversight,” or Biden’s alleged “weakness.” The whole thing’s basically a shell game.
Maybe the fundamental fakery of this debate explains why so many politicians are prone to petulant outbursts when pressed on the subject. In fairness to Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) — who had one of the most stupefying meltdowns I’ve ever had the privilege to witness, after I dared ask about a piece of legislation he had co-sponsored — the embattled Congressman was not alone in throwing a temper tantrum at the first sign of a modestly non-deferential question. A few hours before my rendezvous with Malinowski, I’d gone down to Colts Neck, NJ for a Republican “Get Out The Vote” pep rally featuring Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), who’s running to commence his 43rd straight year representing sections of Southern and Central New Jersey. In a rousing speech, Smith declared to a small group of local GOP elected officials and activists that victory in the midterms was urgently necessary to “end this tyranny” which had been unleashed by Biden.
It’s unclear whether the “tyranny” perceived by Smith extends to the domain of Ukraine war policy. Because that’s a domain in which Smith has criticized Biden for being a softie. This past April, Smith co-sponsored the “Ukraine Invasion War Crimes Deterrence and Accountability Act” — a fascinating bill, which I figured I’d try to ask him about. I waited patiently for the GOP crowd to dwindle and his glad-handing to conclude, then inquired with the Congressman if I could conduct a quick interview. At first he shouted “No!” and started aggressively speed-walking to his car, ushered along by a paranoid campaign staffer. I began asking the question, thereby evincing some level of familiarity with his legislative record; he begrudgingly overruled the meddlesome staffer and agreed to at least give a cursory response. What I wanted to know was, doesn’t the bill he co-sponsored — which envisions Putin being prosecuted and put on trial by some unspecified “tribunal” within the jurisdiction of the US — necessarily assume that the US would have to be in the business of effectuating Putin’s ouster?
Smith seemed to vaguely deny this, and replied: “He should be indicted, and everybody around him, for the aggression.” But again, this leaves unspoken what would need to be done in order to carry out the prosecution of those theoretical indictments, the pursuit of which Smith wants to codify as binding US policy. “How do you prosecute Putin without removing him from power?” I asked.
“You indict him,” Smith said. “You begin the indictment. You lay it all out. The ICC [International Criminal Court] is looking into it right now. But what they do notoriously is spend years, and there’s enough there to indict.” Smith complained that he’d lobbied the State Department on multiple occasions to initiate this action, but hasn’t made much progress yet, which may or may not be a contributing factor to the “tyranny” he referenced.
It’s unclear who the “you” would be in the Putin prosecution scenario that Smith imagines — again, the bill he co-sponsored contemplates vesting some domestic US legal body with the power to indict Russian officials, up to and including Putin, and then subjecting them to imprisonment. Which one would think could only be possible if the US somehow facilitates regime change in Russia. Clarification would have been nice, but amidst my polite questioning, Smith ducked defiantly into the driver seat of his car and sped out of the parking lot.
His flustered aide, Jess Rohr, interrogated me as to how I had heard about the event, as though my very presence was suspicious; I replied that I saw it on the New Jersey Republican Party website. She was appalled that I had not notified her ahead of time that I would be attending, as though that was somehow morally incumbent upon me; she also expressed indignation that I had the audacity to audio-record the public speeches that had been delivered. These congressional staff are truly some of the most belligerently paranoid people on earth; interacting with them is like interacting with an annoying alien robot species. Given that Smith virtually never holds any sort of town hall meetings, and by all accounts is a full-time resident of Fairfax County, Virginia, it’s understandable that he and his staff would be so spooked at the prospect of answering simple questions about his legislative record. At a certain point I just had to play the cliched (but occasionally necessary) card of recommending that the staffer read the First Amendment of the Constitution and chill the hell out.
What members of Congress in both parties are doing is making policy commitments that would plainly have to necessitate regime change in Russia; but they won’t admit this out loud, because the insanity of the proposition is self-evident. Tom Malinowski also may be pleased to know that his Republican opponent, Tom Kean, Jr. — who’s favored to win the election — pulled a Chris Smith this past Sunday and physically fled his own “Get Out The Vote” event when faced with the frightening prospect of fielding my unapproved questions. Like Smith, Kean frantically dove into his car, then pretended to talk on the phone; I like to imagine he was calling up a psychic hotline. Because that’s about the caliber of intellectual input these people appear to be receiving, and also reflects the caliber of public engagement that can be expected from the vast bulk of Republican elected officials, both current and aspiring. So when they don’t all suddenly become principled non-interventionists upon assuming office next year — and the campaign rhetoric turns out to have been as deep as a deflating kiddie pool — please feel free to refer back to this article.