The Memo: A long war in Ukraine will test American voters

Almost two weeks on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the conflict commands Americans’ attention, the headlines and the airwaves.

But that will not always be the case.

The shock sparked by the initial images of the invasion will be blunted by time. 

The defenders of Ukraine, however valiant, are unlikely to stave off the Russian forces forever. 

The media’s focus on Ukraine will become less intense too, as happened in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in which American forces were directly involved.

The overarching political question is whether Americans, while not suffering the life-and-death consequences being visited upon the Ukrainian people, have the stomach to make sacrifices for a long fight in a faraway place.

Right now, there is clear and avid sympathy for the Ukrainians — and an apparent willingness to withstand economic pain at home to support them.

In a Quinnipiac University poll released Monday, a large majority of Americans — 71 percent — said they would support a ban on Russian oil even if it meant higher gas prices in the United States. The figure encompassed 82 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of Republicans. 

Whether those numbers will be sustained as a hypothetical becomes reality is a whole different question.

The average price of gasoline in the United States hit an all-time high on Monday, according to the GasBuddy website, cresting above $4.10.

The stock market is also taking a battering, with the S&P 500 falling roughly three percent on Monday to notch its worst day since October 2020.

Broader inflationary pressures are increasing too, as the price of other commodities, such as wheat, surges.

Even Democrats who are supportive of President Biden’s approach to the crisis are on-edge about how all of this shakes out politically, with the midterm elections just eight months away.

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman told this column that, while he did not doubt the sincerity of Americans’ concern with the plight of Ukraine, “people are ultimately always more focused on their own lives than other people’s lives.”

Electorally speaking, “on the one hand, there is no question that, the better the economy, the better we’ll do in the midterms; and the worse it is, the worse we’ll do,” he added. 

“On the other hand, there are few better reasons to have inflation and a tougher economy than the fact that we are defending Ukraine and sanctioning Russia.”

Right now, Biden seems to be getting a small but measurable boost in his standing as he spearheads a western alliance against Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released late last week showed Biden’s overall approval rating jumping eight percentage points in a month. Approval of his handling of Ukraine went up by a striking 18 points.

The Republican Party has also been in some degree of disarray over the issue, with GOP opinion splintering at least three ways. 

Some have favored an ultra-aggressive approach, with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) going so far as to call on Russian citizens to assassinate Putin. 

Others, often loosely affiliated with former President Trump, have been hesitant about the U.S. getting too deeply involved at all. 

And in the middle, some of the most senior figures including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have given Biden a measure of cautious support for now.

All of that could change. 

The semblance of bipartisanship could fade as more divisive issues such as the exact nature of aid the U.S. should render become sharper.

Terry Madonna, a polling expert and the senior fellow in residence for political affairs at Pennsylvania’s Millersville University, said that there was near-unanimity that American troops should not be put in harm’s way — but that cross-party agreement could begin to break down on any issue beyond that.

“The issue between Republicans and Democrats is likely to not be, are we engaging in ‘boots on the ground’ in Ukraine — I think there is a bipartisan consensus against that — but how quick do we supply, and what do we supply, to the Ukrainians?

“You’ll have some Republicans saying, ‘We need to do more,’ and we’ll have to see what happens.”

On the other side of the equation, some Republicans continue to express skepticism about just how much the American public truly cares about what happens in Ukraine over the long haul.

One strategist affiliated with the more populist, pro-Trump element of the GOP insisted that Republican voters, at least, “are far more concerned with the territorial integrity of the United States than they are with the territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

To be sure, much remains unclear. 

Most analysts believe it is near-certain that Russia will gain control over the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv sooner or later.

That, in turn, would almost certainly spark an insurgent campaign by Ukrainian forces, presumably with the aid of many Western nations.

Such conflicts are almost never short or clean.

The sanctions campaign being waged by Biden will also not work anytime soon, as the president has repeatedly warned.

In his State of the Union speech, Biden emphasized that the Russian invasion “has costs around the world.” 

He added that, for Americans, “This is a real test. It’s going to take time.”

Right now, no-one can be sure whether American voters will give him the time he, or Ukraine, needs.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.



Tags Donald Trump gas prices Joe Biden Lindsey Graham Mitch McConnell Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin
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