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Pence bombs on Ukraine at Republican 2024 confab

Using decades-old hawkish rhetoric wasn't hitting the high notes with this populist crowd. Meanwhile, DeSantis played it safer.

Analysis | Washington Politics

The War in Ukraine has emerged as a stark dividing line amongst the 2024 Republican presidential candidates. This was vividly illustrated in an event in Iowa this past Friday. 

Over the course of a day’s forum in Des Moines hosted by Blaze Media, the various candidates — with the notable exception of frontrunner Donald Trump  — sat down individually with Tucker Carlson, the prominent conservative media personality aiming to chart a new path in the wake of his removal from Fox News. While a variety of issues were discussed, Carlson made Ukraine the focal point, pressing most of the candidates on their position on the war and current U.S. policy.

The one-on-one discussions were quite revelatory. A noted critic of the administration’s war policy throughout his time at Fox, Carlson clearly aimed to expose the more hawkish positions of the establishment figures in the race, particularly that of South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and former Vice President Mike Pence, while also pressing tech billionaire Vivek Ramaswamy and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on the issue. 

Pushed to justify his assessment that “America’s vital national interest is degrading the Russian military,” particularly in comparison to the domestic fentanyl epidemic and the ongoing crisis on the southern border, Senator Scott acknowledged the severity of these problems but nonetheless continued his belligerent posturing towards Russia, affirming that the threats posed by Mexican cartels and Russia can be addressed simultaneously. 

“I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he told Carlson.

Scott also deflected a question from Carlson pertaining to the Biden’s administration's recent decision to send cluster munitions to Ukraine, one met with bipartisan congressional opposition this past week. 

Carlson:  Where are you on the matter of sending cluster bombs to the Ukrainian military?

Scott: Well, if I was president of the United States, we wouldn't have to.

Carlson: But now that we have, what do you think of it?

Scott: I think they're there, so here’s what I would suggest…

Carlson: I don’t think they are there yet so do you think we should sent them?

Evading that, Scott blamed Biden for getting to the point where the U.S. had to send the cluster munitions, but would not say whether he agrees with the decision today, or not. Asked a third time if he thinks Biden should send them, Scott said again, “he's already agreed to do so."

But Scott was clear on the big picture: Russia is the most "immediate military threat" to the "home front." He advanced the conventional party line on the war, accusing Russia of "genocide," and advocating for continued weapon transfers to Ukraine without putting forth any concrete plan for bringing it to a close. He said China was the greatest "long term threat," and that Russia, China, and Iran make up the current "axis of evil."

While Scott’s performance on this front was weak, it did not reach Pence’s level of tone deafness, at least with this populist-conservative audience. Beginning with a heated exchange over allegations of religious persecution in Ukraine, Pence then proceeded to stress the need for the United States to be the "leader of the free world" (a line Scott was also pushing) by arming Ukraine, invoking shopworn neoconservative platitudes while criticizing the Biden administration for supposedly slow-walking assistance and cutting Washington's own military budget. 

“All along the way, the Biden administration has been slow in providing military support. Make no mistake about this. We promised them 33 Abrams tanks in January. I heard again two weeks ago in Ukraine they still don't have them. We've been telling them we'll train their F-16 pilots. But now they're saying maybe January we'll let somebody transfer some jets,” Pence charged.

The conversation concluded with a scathing question from Carlson — now quite visibly annoyed at Pence’s diatribe — on the domestic trade-offs of continued American support for Ukraine. Juxtaposing the crime in American cities and other domestic issues with Pence’s fixation on Ukrainian weapons systems, Carlson asked simply, “where is the concern for the United States in that?” He was given a curt response: “That is not my concern.” Pence then proceeded to end his remarks by falling back on cliched GOP rhetoric, largely to an unreceptive audience.

That's not my concern. Tucker, I've heard that routine from you before, but that's not my concern. Anybody that says that we can't be the leader of the free world and solve our problems at home has a pretty small view of the greatest nation on earth. We can do both. And as President of the United States, we will secure our border, we will support our military. We will revive our economy and stand by our values and we will also lead the world for freedom under my administration. I promise you.

While in reality Pence meant to dismiss the idea of a trade-off existing between domestic and foreign policy, the line — which he repeated — was nonetheless reflexive and met with immediate online opprobrium. It remains to be seen how this will affect the former vice president's campaign.

Scott and Pence’s positions on the war stand in stark contrast with that of Vivek Ramaswamy, the finance entrepreneur-turned-populist presidential candidate. He’s positioning himself closest to former President Trump — who has called for immediate talks and stated that he would end the war in a day

In his conversation with Carlson, Ramaswamy put forth a strategy, albeit provocative, for ending the war, centered around general great power competition: 

I would negotiate a deal that ends the Ukraine war, freeze the current lines of control. Yes, that means giving part of the Donbass region to Russia. I would make a hard commitment that NATO never admits Ukraine to NATO. And those seem like unspeakable words in the certainly the Republican donor class, but we get something greater in return, which is that Putin in that case, would have to exit his military partnership with China and remove nuclear weapons from Kaliningrad which border Poland and get the Russian military out of Cuba and Venezuela and the West. And this is a deal that Putin should do because he ends up winning. He gets things that he doesn't have today, but it secures American interests too.

The night concluded with Ron DeSantis, whose take on the war has been rather wishy-washy, at one point describing it as a "territorial dispute" that is not a vital American interest, before walking back this line to a more conventional GOP stance, marked by his description of Putin as a "war criminal."

In his conversation with Carlson, the Florida governor sounded closer to his initial position, warning of the prospects of a prolonged quagmire, while criticizing the administration’s recent decision to call up 3,000 reserves to Europe and urging the continent itself to take up more of the burden sharing associated with Ukrainian assistance. 

These points were not presented as part of a more restrained overall worldview, however, but seen through the perspective that the Ukrainian conflict distracts from the main foreign threat: China.

Europe needs to do more. This is their backyard. We can't, we have NATO countries that don't produce support for their own defenses and we're supposed to do it and we're taking away weapons and ammo that could go to respond to contingencies overseas. So we would do more in terms of the Pacific and the goal should be to bring it to a conclusion, you bring it to a conclusion in a way that's a sustainable peace and that doesn't reward aggression… the goal should be, we cannot have a quagmire that goes on for years and years and seeing Biden put those troops there, I can tell you we cannot have American troops in Ukraine. That is a total non- starter.

DeSantis did not opine on the particular aspects of a potential peace deal or armistice, refraining from Ramaswamy’s explicit mention of territorial concessions. But he does appear to be distancing himself from establishment orthodoxy.

On the whole, these conversations reveal much about the state of the Republican party. For one, a live audience simply doesn’t respond to the neocon and belligerently anti-Russian rhetoric of yesterday. 

It is also evident that Carlson holds considerable sway over the party’s direction, particularly in the foreign policy realm. This in part may explain the base’s growing wariness towards U.S. involvement in the war, and why establishment figures like Scott and Pence seem out of touch and perhaps destined for short-lived candidacies.

Update 7/17: On Monday, in a straw poll conducted by the Turning Point Action Conference in Florida, over 95 percent of respondents said they were against U.S. involvement in the Ukraine war.

Tucker Carlson and former VP Mike Pence at recent candidate forum sponsored by Blaze Media (You Tube screengrab)
Analysis | Washington Politics
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